Following Giant Steps is yet another beloved jazz standard, this time coming from bassist/composer Charles Mingus. Mingus had been at the forefront of innovation in jazz for some time, having played with bop pioneers Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach during the early 1950s, and had established himself as one of the premier bassists in jazz. Mingus speed dating had, by the mid 50s, also formed an ensemble that was, in size, between a big band and a typical combo- usually 8-10 pieces. Dubbed “The Jazz Workshop”, Mingus wrote many pieces for various permutations of this ensemble. The music was not bop, per se, but also didn’t fit neatly into other categories that were concurrent (“cool jazz”, “modal jazz”, “hard bop”). Mingus’ music was strikingly original in concept and form.
Like Ellington, Mingus knew his musicians well, and liked to write for specific musical personalities in the group, and also encouraged them to improvise parts of his music on the spot, together- taking an almost collective approach to improvisation that was similar to the approach Ornette Coleman had been working on. In 1959, after having recorded many albums as a leader, Mingus recorded his most well known album, Mingus Ah Um which featured the musicians from his “jazz workshop”, including saxophonists John Handy, Booker Ervin, pianist Horace Parlan, and drummer Dannie Richmond. The track we selected for this album, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” was written as tribute to the great tenor saxophonist- Lester Young, who had passed earlier in the year. It is one of Mingus’ most well known tunes, and is a poignant ballad that features an unusual front line horn combination of 3 tenor saxophones, (Handy, Ervin, and Shafi Hadi) who play the melody mostly in unison (occasionally harmonized briefly). It’s blues drenched melody, and melancholy feeling are powerfully striking. John Handy plays a mournful solo, in which, at one point employs a flutter-tongue sound, which is echoed by Mingus on bass – imitating Handy’s effect. Handy’s solo is a highlight, although the overall haunting sound and vibe of this track is just astonishing.