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Mingus' 'Changes' is a mixed bag: Some brilliant music, then a hero's tragic fate

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In 1973, jazz composer and bass virtuoso Charles Mingus signed his last recording contract with Atlantic Records. He'd stay with the label till his death in 1979. A new box set collects his '70s Atlantic records. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "OPUS 4")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: "Opus 4," 1973, from the seven-CD Charles Mingus box "Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings." In that period, he led his last great working quintet before his health declined. The quintet's first album was so-so, but they burned bright on 1974 sessions for the LPs "Changes One" and "Changes Two." Those albums include four late-period Mingus classics. One is an ode to his devoted wife, Susan Graham Mingus, "Sue's Changes."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SUE'S CHANGES")

WHITEHEAD: Charles Mingus' quintet with his most simpatico drummer, Dannie Richmond and Don Pullen on piano. Tenor saxophonist George Adams blew howling free jazz solos, gut bucket blues and sanctified gospel and had a way with a rapturous ballad like Mingus' bow to the master called "Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "DUKE ELLINGTON'S SOUND OF LOVE")

WHITEHEAD: In 1976 and 7, expanded Mingus groups recorded a couple of thematically rich film scores that didn't get used but made up his last great album, "Cumbia And Jazz Fusion." One episode on the title track got a strong buzz from a low-down trio - contrabass clarinet, bass trombone and bassoon. Over the top, the quintet's trumpeter Jack Walrath and Mingus vet Jimmy Knepper preached the blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "CUMBIA AND JAZZ FUSION")

WHITEHEAD: The 1977 album "Three Or Four Shades Of Blues" was one for the record company. Mingus played some old faves with an expanded cast, including three young electric guitarists also heard on the Atlantic label. The project invokes '70s jazz rock sensibilities as much as Mingus' rollicking churchiness (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER GIT HIT IN YOUR SOUL")

CHARLES MINGUS: (Singing, inaudible). Oh, yeah - better get hit in your soul.

WHITEHEAD: Larry Coryell on guitar. The story goes Mingus hated that album till he heard how well it was selling. But the protean bassist was beginning to fade and was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, ALS. Soon he could neither play nor write down the music he heard in his head. He'd give generalized instructions to associates like Jack Walrath, who'd write the actual score, which was credited to Mingus alone. He didn't play on the final sessions under his name, but a big band overstuffed with guest stars did. Ensemble passages could be shaggy, and the strings of solos went on and on. But there were some authentically Mingusy (ph) textures here and there. That's Jimmy Knepper and Slide Hampton on trombones.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SOMETHING LIKE A BIRD (PT. 1)")

WHITEHEAD: Alto saxist Charles McPherson on "Something Like A Bird" from 1978, a year before Charles Mingus died. The seven-CD set "Changes" is admirably tiny. If anything, this inch-thick mini box is a little too small. You'll need your magnifying glass to read the old LP liner notes shrunk to CD size, and I wish Mingus expert Andrew Homzy's new notes had been longer. The half-hour "Something Like A Bird" had been split over two sides on LP, and the reissue unwisely leaves it in pieces instead of restoring the continuous performance. The Mingus "Changes" box is a mixed bag - some brilliant music, then a hero's tragic fate trying to command larger forces as his strength slips away.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "MUSIC FOR 'TODO MODO'")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the new Charles Mingus box set "Changes: The Complete 1970s Atlantic Studio Recordings." FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "MUSIC FOR 'TODO MODO'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.