The music of Charles Mingus is admittedly an acquired taste, but one with riches deep and wide for those who dive into his sometimes murky waters. For years many of Mingus' vintage works on the Atlantic Records label were only available on dubiously designed reissues, both on LP and CD, which attempted to modernize his music presentation for a new generation, only to lose some of the fine peculiarties of the original issues. Fortunately, that is being corrected with a fine series of reasonably priced 180-gram reissues which are arguably good enough to warrant not needing to spring for a pricey original pressing (if you could even find one in pristine condition like this).
For example, the title track from 1956's Pithecantropus Erectus was (according to the liner notes) "chosen as the title because of the width of musical visibility and imagination contained in the thematic material." Accordingly, the original cover artwork indeed provided an important counterpart to bring the listener into Mingus' mindset for this work.
Likewise, 1957's The Clown is also something of a concept record where the cover art plays an important role that had been diffused over the years. According to the liner notes -- and Mingus' statements there -- it tells the story of a clown "who tried to please people like most jazz musicians do, but whom nobody liked until he was dead. My version of the story ended with his blowing his brains out with the people laughing and finally being pleased because they thought it was part of the act." In this instance the cover art of the bleary eyed sad clown is essential to draw the listener into Mingus' vision even before putting the record on.
I picked up two fine reissues recently of these albums and am generally very happy with the high quality 180-gram pressings (both manufactured by Rhino). For less than $12 a piece, these are a steal -- both bearing original period label artwork and pressed on high quality quiet black vinyl.
Of the two, I had one of these releases on CD and this LP sounds a whole lot better with more presence and dynamics to the recording. There isn't a lot of tape hiss and there seems to be a pretty rich range of highs and lows -- from the fine details of the saxophonist's reeds pushing air to the propulsive drive of Mingus' own fingerwork on his upright bass.
The reissue of Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus on the Candid label doesn't fare quite as well (its not pressed by Rhino, by the way). This recording that DOES sound better overall than the CD copy I have with greater dynamic range, and a general sense of air around the music that is already somewhat compressed sounding (perhaps this was made for a radio broadcast originally?). However, the reissue fails a bit because of a noisier pressing that has some periodic groove glitches -- not skips, but just noise from a sloppy pressing process. Perhaps they will go away after numerous plays but really they shouldn't be there (they aren't on the CD so I know its not a tape issue). Its a shame as the reissue does go to the trouble of re-creating the Candid Records label from the period. The original cover art is reproduced but looks a little washed out, so perhaps the original art elements are long lost. Nonetheless, for less than $10, having this on vinyl is a nice step in the right direction until I find a better reissue or original pressing.
All that said, this album holds, quite possibly, the best ever song title this side of Morrissey: "All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother."
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com