Old Songs Made New: Charles Mingus - "Pre-Bird"

Charles Mingus • Pre-Bird • 1961 • Mercury Records
Recorded May 24 & 25, 1960 at Plaza Sound Studios, NYC

The Selections:

The Tracks:

A1. Take The "A" Train (Interpolation: Exactly Like You)
A2. Prayer For Passive Resistance
A3. Eclipse
A4. Mingus Fingus No. 2
A5. Weird Nightmare
B1. Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me (Interpolation: I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart)
B2. Bemoanable Lady
B3. Half-Mast Inhibition

The Players:

Charles Mingus - Bass
Ted Curson - Trumpet
Booker Ervin - Tenor Saxophone
Joe Farrell - Tenor Saxophone
Yusef Lateef - Tenor Saxophone, Flute
Eric Dolphy - Alto Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Flute
Jimmy Knepper - Trombone
Paul Bley - Piano (A1, A3, A5)
Roland Hanna - Piano (A2, B1)
Dannie Richmond - Drums
Lorraine Cousins - Vocals (A3, A5)

On A4, B2, B3:

Charles Mingus - Bass
Marcus Belgrave - Trumpet
Ted Curson - Trumpet
Hobart Dotson - Trumpet
Clark Terry - Trumpet
Richard Williams -  Trumpet
Bill Barron - Tenor Saxophone
Joe Farrell - Tenor Saxophone
Yusef Lateef - Tenor Saxophone, Flute
John LaPorta - Alto Saxophone, Clarinet
Eric Dolphy - Alto Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Flute
Danny Bank - Baritone Saxophone
Eddie Bert - Trombone
Charles Greenlee - Trombone
Slide Hampton - Trombone
Jimmy Knepper - Trombone
Robert DiDomenica - Flute
Don Butterfield - Tuba
Harry Shulman - Oboe
Roland Hanna - Piano
Charles McCracken - Cello
Dannie Richmond - Drums
Sticks Evans - Percussion
George Scott - Percussion
Gunther Schuller - Conductor

The Record:

Mingus Enjoying A Smoke. Photo Credit Unknown.

Mingus Enjoying A Smoke. Photo Credit Unknown.

As an avid follower of Charles Mingus and his music, I must confess to an ignorance when it came to Pre-Bird; for many years I figured that it was a compilation of early recordings by Mingus, made in the years before he hit the big time on his own. Man, was I ever wrong on that one. Part of the problem lies with the Mingus discography and all the label-hopping that he was doing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After leaving Columbia, he made this one-off album for Mercury, making it an oddity in his catalog, and leading to my incorrect assumption that the label had simply garnered the rights to some early Mingus compositions and released it for a quick payday after the bassist's explosion in commercial popularity after Mingus Ah Um. Again, way off base, the wonderful music on Pre-Bird was recorded in 1960 and is every bit as fantastic as one would expect from Mingus during this period of his illustrious career.

The premise behind the recording (and the title) is straightforward, as the liner notes state right up front:

"...most of the music here was written by Charles Mingus when he was a young man, some of it when he was still in his teens, before he became associated with Charle Parker, Bud Powell, and the rest of the famous modernists of the 40's with whom he later played..."

This being the case, the heavy influence of Duke Ellington is all over the place on Pre-Bird (Mingus openly acknowledged the importance of Ellington on his music, especially early on), and this influence is directly stated in the opening tracks of both sides of the record. Billy Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train" (often called Ellington's theme song) and "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" open Sides 1 and 2 respectively, and are both ingeniously juxtaposed (or "interpolated" as the track listing puts it) with the compositions that inspired each tune, "Exactly Like You" for the former and Ellington's "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" for the latter. Both songs are done distinctly in Mingus' style of the day, complex multi-instrument melodies followed by strong solos by various musicians. Modern reissues either omit the interpolated tunes in the song titles or have them listed as to suggest a medley, both an affront to what Mingus was going after when he recorded them.

The most well-known track from the record is most certainly "Prayer For Passive Resistance", very likely due to it's similarity in feel to the songs on Mingus Ah Um, the album that finally brought Mingus and his vision of modern jazz the respect it deserved. The other composition on the album that tends to get attention is "Bemoanable Lady", a typically beautiful Mingus ballad that serves as a feature for some excellent Eric Dolphy soloing. There are two tracks that feature the vocalist Lorraine Cousins, and both are a little jarring when you come across them upon first listening to the record, as they feel out of place, but the more you hear them the more they seem perfectly at home in the context of the album, as her voice seems to serve as another instrument in Mingus' visions of the song. All of the songs on the album hold up to the high expectations that one would have for the work of Mingus in 1960, many with that trademark film soundtrack vibe that he brought to modern jazz, and the record certainly has stood the test of time to stand with his other work from this time.

There are some familiar names in both the small group and the larger orchestra put together for the sessions, with Dolphy, Yusef Lateef, Booker Ervin and Dannie Richmond leading the way, but also some names that will be familiar to those that like to dig a little deeper into modern jazz with the likes of Roland Hanna and Paul Bley on piano, Joe Farrell on the sax and Clark Terry on the trumpet. 

A quick note for the sticklers and completists: Pre-Bird was later re-released in 1965 on the Limelight label as Mingus Revisited with the same tracklist and a completely different cover.

The Vinyl:

The record is a beautiful example of heavy, deep groove vintage vinyl from 1960, with the expected gorgeously lush and full playback that shows off all that Mingus' sound from this time has to offer. I grabbed this copy for $32 at my local shop, they knew they had an album that one doesn't come across everyday and priced it accordingly, but I gladly parted with my money as the price was very reasonable given the Very Good Plus condition of the vinyl.

The stamped markers in the vinyl trail-off are nice and simple, with "MG 20627A MS1" and "MG 20627B MS1" on sides 1 and 2 respectively. There is also what appears to be a very small "F" on each side, I'm not sure what these designate, perhaps the pressing plant location.

The great Leonard Feather was the recording director for the sessions, and he provides an in-depth rundown of the equipment used during the recording, and while I'm not into that stuff, there are definitely folks out there that would be excited to know that an Altec 150A microphone was used on Mingus' bass (Feather lists all the mics used) and that both sessions were recorded on Ampex tape recorders at 15 inches per second. As I said, not my cup of tea necessarily, but still a cool bit of minutia to be found on vintage vinyl pressings.

Overall a very nice addition to the vintage Mingus LPs already on the shelf, Pre-Bird should make plenty of appearances on the turntable in the years to come. It is solidly exciting and original record that only reaffirms a love of the music of Mingus and his cohorts and their unique place in the world of modern jazz.