Charles Mingus – Oh Yeah (1962)

It’s always an event when two mad geniuses come together to record an album. Multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk, young, blind and brilliant, performed with Charles Mingus for a mere three months. Oh Yeah (also featuring the very excellent Booker Ervin who is less prominent here) is the sole recorded chronicle of this brief union, and one of the rare Charles Mingus albums on which Mingus plays no bass at all, only piano. He also sings throughout like a man trapped in conflicted emotional intensity, which is an accurate summation of this unique musical visionary. On the liner notes he makes the telling observation: “I mean, it’s getting more and more difficult for a man to just love.” On ‘Devil Woman’ he laments “Gonna get me a Devil woman, Angel woman don’t treat me no good.” The genesis of this disharmony may be found in his autobiography Beneath The Underdog, which contains this passage of the author speaking about himself as a young child:

“It was about this time he heard himself called a strange name. Playing in the sandbox he was pouring nice hot sand down his pants because it felt so good. He was yanked from the box by a teacher. ‘SEX PERVERT!’ she said. He didn’t know what it meant but he soon heard more on the subject.”

Tension is at the core of his music, which is evident in his song title ‘Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me’ a pleading church-blues featuring a subdued Kirk solo full of resignation. On ‘Ecclusiastics’ he confesses “I know I’ve been wrong, yeah I have,” then sketches a piano solo that begins meekly and gradually works towards a realisation of inner freedom that is fully embraced during a typically wailing solo by Roland Kirk with Mingus howling ‘Oh yeah! Oh yeah!’ only for the song to be dragged submissively back to church and more confession. Of God he says “Everyone is Him. This big invisible source is us,” as if to grant a remission of his sins, perceived or otherwise.

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“I’m trying to play the truth of what I am. The reason it’s difficult is because I’m changing all the time.”
The impact of Roland Kirk’s influence here is best heard on the whirlpool ‘Hog Callin’ Blues’. The sounds coming from his sax are untamed lashings of wild energy that devolve into further strangeness as the track progresses, a foretaste of his maelstrom approach of the early 70s, particularly his no-holds-barred concert climaxes. ‘Wham Bam, Thank You Ma’am’ is a diabolical piece of Monkish tricksiness and the unashamedly nonsensical ‘Eat That Chicken’ which could be a playful throwaway in lesser hands, becomes an irresistible demonstration of unbridled ecstasy by Mingus and his pals. And at the moment you think things couldn’t possibly get any weirder along comes ‘Passions Of A Man’, an experimental soundscape construction of found sounds, talking-in-tongues vocalisation and Roland Kirk’s array of whistles and sirens which is never less than truly bizarre, making The Beatles infamous ‘Revolution #9’ sound emaciated by comparison, probably because John Lennon was nowhere near as crazy (or talented) as Charles Mingus.

Perhaps the wildest album in the Mingus catalog, Oh Yeah is both highly listenable and utterly confounding. No other jazz artist was producing music like this in 1962, indeed, it is probably true that Charles Mingus, while composing homages to past jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, was many years ahead of his time.

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