It didn’t take a lot of research for me to find justification about why you need to own the recently reissued Impulse Records / Acoustic Sounds-series reissue of Charles Mingus’ 1963 masterwork The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady.
Before we get into how great the music is, lets just consider the scarcity of nice clean original copies currently on the broader marketplace known as the Internet. Of the 500-plus copies of the album that are available on Discogs, for an easy example, only eight are original pressings from 1963 and most are in Mono. Conditions range from “very good” (aka “VG”) up to one “near mint” copy with prices ranging from $90 to $250. At the time of this writing there was one copy on eBay going for $150. Five copies have shown up on Popsike thus far this year, ranging in price from about $75 to $180.
So for about $28-$38 depending on where you buy it — hopefully at your favorite music store — the Acoustic Sounds reissue is the best way to get your hands on The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady relatively easily without breaking the bank. You’ll be getting a copy of a classic album that is going to sound great and look as close as we can hope an original pressing would look.
True to the format of the Acoustic Sounds reissue program, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is made to a very high standard, pressed on high-quality, well centered, quiet and dark black 180-gram vinyl that is manufactured at Quality Record Pressing. Collectors will appreciate what I’m about to say: when you pick up this record, it feels like its from 1963!
The gatefold cover art features the glossy laminated design and as we’ve seen with other editions in the series, it is probably better than an original copy. They have also recreated the period-accurate orange-cross styled Impulse Records label design from the early 1960s, which is very close to other original albums I own on the label.
How hard is this album to find in an original copy? Well I don’t even have a copy of it. Truth be told, I’ve never been able to justify spending several hundred dollars for any particular album. It a thing for me, partially due to my personal enjoyment of the deep record collector’s treasure hunt aesthetic which I embrace — I like scouring “the wilds” of thrift shops, flea markets and estate sales. Don’t laugh, I have found many of my rarest albums I own in those venues.
But enough of basic rarity. Some of you may be wondering how The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady actually sounds? Pretty fantastic! Mingus and the band are smoking, having rehearsed the material during a run at the Village Vanguard before recording, working with arranger Bob Hammer.
It is very much a large band recording so if you are not familiar with this album expect to hear horns-a-wailing, bass-a-thumpin’, piano tinkling ‘n twinkling and drums swinging and grooving. Mingus’ own liner notes to the album at one point portray the feeling here as “tears of sound” which is a very appropriate description. As with much of Mingus’ peak period music, The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is steeped in the blues as much as jazz. As this was originally conceived as a ballet of a sort, there are themes that sound almost theatrical in nature. A multi-movement piece, the recording takes the listener on a rich journey of emotions which are very evident the moment you put on the album.
Structured in some ways like a traditional classical recording, there are certain re-current themes which are rich in melody to the point where one might consider them “the hook” in pop music terms (Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf comes to mind for me at this time).
The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady has a curious feel of a modern multi-track recording — this is reputedly the first jazz album to encompass overdubs — creating a vibe that is in some ways very different from his earlier albums. Mingus always was in some regards cutting edge.
That cutting edge vision may come with a downside depending on your perspective. If you are a purist who prefers a live-in-the-studio (or stage) vibe from your Jazz music, well this may not be your thing. This is a studio production and there are clear starts and stops, sudden shifts and wild mood swings at times. To achieve that, physical edits and “punch ins” are sometimes apparent in the recording. I actually appreciate this creative use of the studio but I needed to point this out for some of you who may be on the fence, especially those of you seeking realism.
If you know a little bit about Mingus and his life you’ll get a sense of what The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is about just from the title. But do read his amazing liner notes — the first part written is by Mingus himself and the second part by his therapist! There you’ll not only get insight into his thought processes and the importances of the individual band members contributions, but also, you’ll get a sense of the artist’s underlying vision:
“I wrote this music for dancing and listening. It is true music with much and many of my meanings. It is my living epitaph from birth til the day I first heard of Bird and Diz. Now it is me again. The music is only one little wave of styles, waves of little ideas my mind has encompassed through living in a society that calls itself sane, as long as you’re not behind iron bars where there is at least one can’t be half as crazy as in most of the venues our leaders take upon themselves to do and think for us, even to the day we should be blown up to preserve their idea of how life should be. Crazy? They’d never get out of the observation ward at Bellevue. I did. So, listen how. Play this record.”
Heady stuff, but don’t be intimidated. First, let yourself just be pulled into the melodies, the themes, the passion, pain and joy within this music. Use this as a springboard — if you haven’t already — to dig deeper into what makes this magnificent, sometimes misunderstood artist tick. His was a fascinating — if tumultuous — life.
The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is an orchestral type piece so don’t go into this expecting some groove jazz vibe. The sound here is more in line with some of Duke Ellington’s orchestral works with formal movements but even that doesn’t paint the right picture in my mind. If you have ever heard Frank Zappa’s 1972’s double-whammy of big band releases — The Grand Wazoo and WakaJawaka — you may find some common ground here with Mingus.
Is it possible for an album of orchestral-leaning classic jazz to rock? I think so and The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is certainly one of Mingus’s greatest rockers in that sense. And now everyone can hear it in a manner close to how Mingus originally presented it to the world: on high quality vinyl.