Pithecanthropus Erectus – Charles Mingus

I heard this track on the radio the other night courtesy of John Kelly’s show and thought I’d write a post about it because I think it’s a neglected masterpiece. Pithecanthropus Erectus is the title track of an album by Charles Mingus released in 1956. For that time it was incredibly new: the long passages of static harmony, along with grunts and squeals from the horns, all became common place in avant garde jazz in later years but it is very surprising to hear them in a record from the mid 50s.

Mingus intended this piece to convey in music humanity’s evolution, which he imagined would end in violent destruction. Who’s to say he was wrong? The tune itself is in an intriguing ABAC form with the B and C sections based on the same unvarying harmonic pattern but the C section being agitated and even chaotic. On the first and last choruses the alto sax of Jackie Mclean and the tenor of J.R. Monterose play improvised duets on the B section while the C section involves the whole band improvising collectively in a style reminiscent of the free jazz of the 1960s. The unusual accents on the fourth beat of the bar were later adopted by Miles Davis on Milesetones. These are just a couple of examples of how influential this track was to turn out to be. Looking back on it in historical perspective you can see how much of the musical vocabulary of jazz expanded with this one track.

Mingus shared with Miles Davis the ability to create music that was distinctively his own while somehow at the same time giving his musicians plenty of time to express themselves. In this performance there’s a very fine piano solo by Mal Waldron who, among other things, very effectively channels Thelonious Monk to a marvelous bass accompaniment by Mingus.

The other three tracks on the album are good too, but inevitably pale beside this work of genius in which Mingus managed to weld all these new and untried elements into a completely satisfying unity that was years ahead of its time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: