Those Nuclear Half Life Blues Baby

Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs

This is an album of Charles Mingus covers, by the trio of Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker and Fabien Duscombs, largely drawn from the Jazz Workshop era. The title is right on the geist. Whahay could easily be a lost Mingus or Roland Kirk album for Atlantic.

I was and am crazy enough about Mingus to make a playlist of original cuts to compare these covers to. But it didn’t just end there, oh no. A lengthy faff with GarageBand, and I had two albums, on two MP3 files. One of the Mingus covers by the guys under scrutiny, and the other of the Mingus originals, all in the same running order. I then banged both of them onto CDs and drove around in them all week. This is my report from the field.

“Better Git It in Your Soul” opens the album, and their take is utterly lyrical, all flowing clarinet and bowed bass, a vehicle with luxurious suspension, fuller, fatter, before a breakdown and jump cuts in, a take on the streets all around, shards of the original melody bursting out. Lights flash, then cut.

Immediately, here was a work of intelligence and craft, which understood its material back to front, and sometimes pulled it inside out like a sock. I stopped the car twice.

I took them into the house. I started looking into the material and its provenance. I noticed that there was nothing from Tonight at Noon, or Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. There are three numbers from Mingus Ah Um, but this is great, because the trio clearly re-approached the tracks that stand further work, and left those that didn’t need it alone. “Solo Dancer” from Black Saint, and “Old Blues for Walt’s Torin”, from Tonight at Noon, dedicated to Roland Kirk, are two of the most powerful pieces Mingus ever made. Their absence shows understanding. Even John Coltrane’s son doesn’t try to be Coltrane, and that’s part of his intelligence and art, as it is here.

The struggle of the whole human world in one short day lies underneath Mingus and Coltrane. But a thousand years of slavery and oppression lie under “Solo Dancer” and “Old Blues for Walt’s Torin”. All that trouble erupting, through the volcano that was Charles Mingus. Sex, death, love and horror, all meshed into the same music. Ultimate weariness, and ultimate joy, simultaneously expressed through a new musical language. The feeling of being on your feet for so long that your shoe soles seem to have collapsed, but are running on sheer, thrilling momentum. That is the distilled essence of Mingus, so melodic and atonal, sweet and bitter, all at the same time. You just can’t replicate that. Critical alarm bells would have rung if they had tried, not because they didn’t.

The sleeve avoids any retro fandom, which must have been tempting, given the history of Mingus album sleeves. But it’s spot on, just the title, deadpan, 2000s aesthetics, and a photograph of a massive fairground wheel. Perfectly judged.

“Ecclusiastics” plays with the title of the Old Testament bible chapter, and here they play it like Roland Kirk might, all bells, whistles, and strange incantations. It is lifted-out and refreshed, like a great translator can transform a great poet. They become half of themselves, and half the figure they are channeling. The whole history of British art schools somehow seems compounded into just this one track. Dada from Europe and music from America after World War Two. It all congealed, and pop art emerged, in Britain and America.

“Work” and “Jump” are from the Cafe Bohemia live recordings. Max Roach played on those live dates, documents of the Mingus “Jazz Workshop” method, the concert as practice, practice as concert. Again, the happening and British arts labs arrive later, but we always need to pinch ourselves and remember that Mingus released Pithecanthropus Erectus back in 1956, and Black Saint in 1963, just as The Beatles climbed out of their prams. The Mingus workshop was a kind of informal jazz school, clearing the way for all the jazz innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, which rendered the subsequent decades a dusty, wax museum.

Of course, any approach to Mingus requires a truly great bassist, and Paul Rogers is definitely that. It could have been slavishly reproduced, but the slightly queasy, see-sawing seven string bass has its own spiky agenda, in someone else’s meeting. It is glassy and light one moment, it pours like molten tar, then scrapes and scratches. “Pithecanthropus Erectus” here is shorter, much less New Orleans and more abstract, sketchier. It rips up any worries of a tepid run-through of “some classics” by men in cardigans, along with much of the original mount.

Mingus was covered during his time, of course, jazz being an art of covers in many ways. He was covered by the album too, for instance Pepper Adams Plays Charlie Mingus, released in 1963. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”, from Mingus Ah Um, has been covered globally, countless times. The version here doesn’t tear it up like, say, Coltrane blowing “My Favourite Things”, or Martin Archer exploding Nick Drake’s “Know”, or Steven R. Smith, drawing all the darkness out of Leonard Cohen’s “I Tried To Leave You”.

Mingus’s original “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was a mourning rite for Lester Young, a highly personal, midnight whisky sob. Here it begins with an eastern feel, the bass tickling the other two musicians slowly awake, and into action. It nods towards the modes and tones of Tonight at Noon, the world-upside-down of jazz, without actually covering anything from the album. It’s minimal and spare, and understands the futility of trying to go beyond the original. But I’m glad they brought Tonight at Noon in somehow, that album was a kind of healing wind, birthing Beefheart and a hundred other crazy geniuses.

It was the first warm breeze before the 60s hit. Adrian Henri wrote a poem after it, with the same title, and we’re back in the art school again, which spawned everything rebellious and beautiful on my home island. This isn’t flimsy bluster, Mingus really is that important. From The Soft Machine, to Ian Dury, Mingus was present. At the recent Adrian Henri retrospective in Liverpool, I heard Pete Brown explain how in the 1950s they did not wait for God or Godot, but for someone to go up to London and bring back another Mingus album. The Angloschauung isn’t irrelevant either, Paul Rogers played the London scene, with Keith Tippett and Elton Dean. His latest trio stays with that spirit of collage and craft, serious skill and innovative irreverence.

“Jump, Monk” is a tribute to Thelonious Monk, whose moves Mingus replicated on bass. But here we begin with bass harmonics, a groove kicks in and the sax seems to be travelling backwards. The playful side of the Mingus spirit is right here, the stabs and spits, the sudden Looney Tunes chases, breakdowns and solo sidepaths. I couldn’t point to exactly where, but Eric Dolphy has also been infused, somehow, into all of this. Mingus once punched Dolphy onstage, leaving a permanent lump on his forehead. The man and the music were the same raucous mess as the world they expressed.

However, there is less of a collective feel here, of a big conversation (or argument, or fight). The Mingus Jazz Workshop recordings sometimes sound like animals, sending out ‘get it on’ signals and warning signs. The squawk and screech of any urban underground turned into music. That’s what makes those recordings so electrically vital.

“Reincarnation of a Lovebird”, and “Bird Calls”, follow each other in sequence here. The twittering of spring joy, birds as birds, with feathers, and Bird as Bird, as in Charlie Parker. Here is all the speeding jive chat of New York’s club scene, further occulted into formal layers of sound, understandable to initiates, but incomprehensible torture to outsiders. This trio doesn’t fail, delivering at high speed, like The Ramones. But there are only three players, so the album sounds like a much more intimate take on the material, much of the time. Like a huddled, but highly arcane conversation, between three school friends who share an obsession with Sun Ra.

They make the sound fuller, recording technology is partly responsible, but they clarify lines here, break them down there. They raid the original sketches and plans, conserve some of the finer structures, before shattering the scree further.

Must there always be down sides? No. There are none. This is not a simple homage. This is a highly intelligent love song to the nuclear half-life blues of one man and his cohorts, who changed the culture of an entire planet.