OFF!’s FIRST FOUR EPS has no business being this good. Why? Because punk rock is a young person’s game, and because there is nothing quite as tired, unintentionally comic or downright embarrassing as an old punk out to prove they still have the goods. Because OFF! vocalist Keith Morris (aka Johnny Bob Goldstein) left one of the greatest of all punk bands (Black Flag) to form another fleetingly great band (Circle Jerks) that released a masterpiece of a fifteen minute debut LP (GROUP SEX) and immediately started going downhill. Because the window of opportunity in punk rock is incredibly brief; the moment you realize you’ve stumbled onto a good thing, chances are it’s gone. Because The Ramones were over and done with after ROAD TO RUIN (it was 1978). Because OFF! includes bassist Steven McDonald, ex-member of the formerly great LA punk band Red Cross, who I once endured opening for Sonic Youth (it was 1991 or thereabouts) in a hugely inferior later incarnation that had devolved into late-‘70s retro kitsch so horrible it was like spending purgatory in a plush custom van with an overly talkative Kristy McNichol lookalike. Because yes Negative Approach did it, but that doesn’t mean you can, or should even try for that matter. Because ENJOY! is the last Descendents album I own (it was released in 1986). Because being angry about the same things (or in the same way, even) at age 40 as you were at 18 isn’t defiance or stubbornness, it’s stagnant, it’s stale and it’s sad. Because Reagan sucks and no war, no KKK, no fascist USA. Because Elvis Presley was over and done with after he left Sun Records for RCA (it was 1956). Because some supposedly great LA punk bands were actually never any good: TSOL for one instance, Suicidal Tendencies for another. Because it’s better to burn out quickly like Darby Crash than to fade off into irrelevancy like _____. Because Dr. Quincy MD can’t understand why you won’t listen to music that makes you love instead of hate. Because Mike Watt is the punkest dude on the planet without even trying, writing rock operas, touring constantly, slapping some bass for Kelly Clarkson and absorbing the greatness of John Coltrane and James Joyce. Because John Belushi wanted Black Flag to play on Saturday Night Live instead of the highly overrated Fear, but The Man wouldn’t let him have his way. Because even if you do manage to produce a solid, worthy recording that shows you still have that intangible “it”, a fact that makes you (secretly, of course) feel a little proud of prevailing in the face of so much adversity, there is a ragtag bunch of awkward adolescents that just did it so much better on a feeble four-track after school in a garage with subpar instruments and a little bit of luck conquering spotty competence, and none of those snot-nosed wet-behind-the-ears youths are even the slightest bit prideful of their achievement; on the contrary, they’re disappointed it didn’t come out sounding better, and right about now don’tcha just feel old? Because if Black Flag actually had managed to play on Saturday Night Live, rock history would very likely have unfolded much differently. Because I’ll say it again…OFF!’s FIRST FOUR EPS simply has no business being this good. But it is.
In the halls of jazz music’s extensive history, Charles Mingus is a unique, imposing figure. Along with being possibly the greatest double bass player the form has yet produced, he was also a demanding bandleader with an unerring sense of talent and a multi-faceted composer of the absolute highest rank. He applied a bluesy, swing-influenced approach to the multiple contexts presented by the fertile 1950’s post-bop playground and became associated with the progressions of the avant-garde in large part due to the sheer depth and earthy grandeur of his oeuvre, a tale of work so loaded with essential recordings that it is, as they say, inexhaustible. MINGUS AH UM is the most famous LP in that discography, additionally considered one of the core masterpieces in the jazz canon, and anyone beginning to build a solid jazz collection or just seeking to sate curiosity into the boundless sound of this thorny genius will reckon with and be rewarded by the inviting complexity of its brilliance. Maybe more than any other improvising musician to come to prominence after bop’s arrival, Mingus exemplified the combination of tradition and innovation. He integrated and elevated well-established ideas in a contemporary framework that evolved into a highly recognizable personal aesthetic; in this he was similar to his cohorts Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman. But where those four masters attained their stature mostly through the development of unmistakable approaches to shading and soloing, Mingus’s achievement stands out since his primary instrument lacks the expressive range of horns and keys and even drums. This isn’t to imply that he lacked a distinctive playing style. Rather, it’s just to establish that the bass almost always takes a back seat in jazz bands (piano trios excepted), bands that almost always feature horns. For example, a huge chunk of Jimmy Garrison’s exquisite playing is essentially swallowed up by the sheer boldness of the saxophone in Coltrane’s Classic Quartet. This situation placed Mingus in a similar environment to Duke Ellington, whose skill as a pianist is still often overshadowed in relation to his abilities as composer and bandleader, largely due to the loud and often rowdy nature of the big band form. Of course anyone familiar with the problematic yet exhilarating MONEY JUNGLE LP from ’63 will likely testify to the ability of both Ellington and Mingus as pure players, for that slab finds them in trio with the redoubtable Max Roach. But I digress, a behavior that’s hard to avoid in relation to Duke or Charles (or Max!) or jazz in general. One of a multitude of doorways into the greatness of MINGUS AH UM is how, like Duke, Mingus was able to so effectively express the spectrum of his personality through song in the realm of collective endeavor. That aforementioned aptitude for sussing out the musicians most able to speak his language was key, as was his often ruthless dedication to an at times unattainable standard. AH UM features one of his greatest bands, likely the greatest to not feature Jaki Byard or Eric Dolphy, with such luminaries as pianist Horace Parlan, trombonists Jimmy Knepper and Willie Dennis, sax men Booker Ervin, John Handy and Shafi Hadi and drummer Dannie Richmond making up the ranks. The level of artistry this unit sustains can be viewed as a rich dialogue between the band, the listener, history and the eternal now. “Better Git It in Your Soul” details the complexity and necessity of belief, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” elegizes the life and passing of a jazz titan, Lester “Prez” Young, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” seems to celebrate the kineticism of urban life and its longstanding relationship to the jazz ethos, “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” concerns ancestry and identity, Open Letter To Duke” and “Jelly Roll” close their respective sides and depict Mingus’s relationship with his predecessors, “Bird Calls” nods not to Parker but to the regenerative qualities of nature, “Pussy Cat Dues” provides a welcome thread of ineffable poetics (Strip clubs? Nine lives?), and “Fables of Faubus” calls onto the carpet the rancid ideology of a bigoted segregationist politician. Now, since this is a review of a high-quality LP reissue of the original 1959 release, I cannot in good conscience neglect to mention that many of the songs here are edits of recordings that took two decades or longer to see the light of day in their original form. In most cases this circumstance would spell shoddy or otherwise inferior product. And while any ears attuned to quality jazz will want to spend much time with all of the sessions’ unexpurgated tracks, the edits on this LP were supervised by musician, producer and longtime Miles Davis associate Teo Macero. His sensitive input, while undeniably skewing the reality of the untouched tapes, undoubtedly assisted in getting as much of their amazing essence as possible onto two sides of a stereophonic record. For that we should be grateful. These are the versions that altered jazz and established Charles Mingus for all time as one of the form’s greatest practitioners.