The complex music on this LP finds bassist Charles Mingus looking toward contemporary classical music in some of the rather cool-toned arrangements. It was not until later in 1955 that he found the right combination of influences in which to express himself best but these slightly earlier performances have their moments. Four of the selections feature tenor-saxophonist Teo Macero, pianist Wally Cirillo, drummer Kenny Clarke and Mingus in a quartet while the other five tracks showcase a sextet with Macero, George Barrow on tenor and baritone and clarinetistaltoist John La Porta.
This 2-CD set compiles all of the music recorded by the Charles Mingus Quintet with Max Roach as the guest star during a fruitful and extended evening in 1955. Most but not all of the material appeared on the LPs "Mingus at the Bohemia" (Debut Records DEB-123) and "The Charles Mingus Quintet Plus Max Roach" (Fantasy 6009), while the rest were issued on different compilations.
The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history. Charles Mingus consciously designed the six-part ballet as his magnum opus, and – implied in his famous inclusion of liner notes by his psychologist – it's as much an examination of his own tortured psyche as it is a conceptual piece about love and struggle. It veers between so many emotions that it defies easy encapsulation; for that matter, it can be difficult just to assimilate in the first place. Yet the work soon reveals itself as a masterpiece of rich, multi-layered texture and swirling tonal colors, manipulated with a painter's attention to detail. There are a few stylistic reference points – Ellington, the contemporary avant-garde, several flamenco guitar breaks – but the totality is quite unlike what came before it. Mingus relies heavily on the timbral contrasts between expressively vocal-like muted brass, a rumbling mass of low voices (including tuba and baritone sax), and achingly lyrical upper woodwinds, highlighted by altoist Charlie Mariano.
Charles Mingus' debut for Columbia, Mingus Ah Um is a stunning summation of the bassist's talents and probably the best reference point for beginners. While there's also a strong case for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady as his best work overall, it lacks Ah Um's immediate accessibility and brilliantly sculpted individual tunes. Mingus' compositions and arrangements were always extremely focused, assimilating individual spontaneity into a firm consistency of mood, and that approach reaches an ultra-tight zenith on Mingus Ah Um.