Legacy Reissue Roundup: Charles Mingus, The Thelonious Monk Quartet, Bill Withers

Here are some suggestions to weigh down someone’s stocking this year from the good folks at Legacy Recordings. I have a personal preference for boxes that deliver the most music for the most reasonable price, and these modestly sized but musically immersive sets do the trick. None of these happen to include previously unreleased music, but they do offer a chance to build up a collection instantly, with quality liner notes and attention to detail.

Charles Mingus: The Complete Columbia and RCA Albums Collection

For the Mingus fan, there’s perhaps no period more worth obsessing over than his work in the late fifties, as he expanded the sound of the mid-size ensemble. All of his albums for Columbia between 1957 and 1959, including the monumental Mingus Ah Um, are presented in this set along with a more obscure set of discs dating from 1971-72 and a posthumous tribute album from 1989.

As is the Legacy Complete Collection standard, the records are faithfully presented here in cardboard mini-sleeves, the discs themselves often fleshed out with fascinating alternate takes. The two-disc Tijuana Moods includes multiple alternate versions of every track, most going on longer and reaching into somewhat different directions than the more polished takes used for the LP. Some of the takes that get cut off after less than two minutes are less than essential, but will be interesting to the deep listener who wants to hear what direction the band was were going in, and the exact moment where Mingus cuts them off for a recalibration. Listen carefully and you can hear the intersection of improvisation with carefully directed composition, in the hands of a true master.

Let My Children Hear Music, from 1971, is from a period less familiar to most listeners, offering finely detailed compositions that juxtapose contrasting styles and time signatures on a measure by measure basis, occasionally suggesting the Mothers Of Invention gone acoustic. Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert, recorded in February, 1972 after a six-year absence from live performance, captures a big band stuffed with big names (Gerry Mulligan, Joe Chambers, James Moody, Lee Konitz, even a vocal cameo from Dizzy Gillespie) working its way through some of Mingus’ longest, most complex works, swinging hard through the dense charts. The 20-minute “Little Royal Suite” alone would be worth the price of the disc, but this makes for a fine collection of his late-period work.

The two-disc Epitaph from 1989, with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Randy Brecker interpreting his tunes with a big band under the direction of Gunther Schuller, is frankly not likely to be chosen over any of the other music in this box when you’re in the mood to hear some Mingus. Some of the more abstract tunes are listenable, but the whole thing feels embarrassingly stiff when heard next to the man’s own work. Mingus wanted to make a large group playing complicated arrangements swing like a small combo playing the blues, and often succeeded, while this band sounds like they’re struggling to make it through the charts, let along feel anything.

Hopefully it’s not news that you could use more than a little Mingus in your life, and with the number of essential moments vastly outweighing the merely curious, this set is a good place to stock up at a reasonable price.

Bill Withers – The Complete Sussex and Columbia Albums

Bill Withers is a giant of American soul music, and anybody that can dig that should have at least a few of his albums in the collection. This behemoth box collects the singer’s entire professional career, ninety-one tracks over nine albums, spanning the years 1971 to 1985.

The highest points mostly appear early in the chronology, or what might have been the “Complete Sussex Recordings” box. Withers’ career-opening one-two punch of Just As I Am and Still Bill, two albums that helped define the sound of black popular music at the beginning of the seventies, is still a joy to experience. Both are both instant classics, enjoyable from from to back and sizzling at their highest peaks. There’s also the odd, inventive +Justments, and the epic Live At Carnegie Hall set, recorded in of 1972 at the height of his power,  backed by a stellar linep including some of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, often cited as one of the great double-live albums.

The mid-to-late seventies albums for Columbia are a mixed bag – his material would never be as consistently strong as on those first three, and he began to show a distressing fondness for smooth jazz production, in contrast to the tightly wound instrumentals that powered those early LPs. But Menagerie proves to be a highlight of the era, kicking up the tempos and the commitment, an honest to goodness return- to- form album despite its dated production style.

Sadly, the 1985 comeback attempt Watching Me Watching You is a misstep. Withers’ amazing voice fails to raise the level of sub-standard songs that seem to have been rendered on Casio keyboards. It’s the one total loss out of the set, but one low point out of four amazing discs and four decent-to-great ones still makes for a strong career-spanning box. I’d say it’s worth owning the run, if only for all those exquisite vocal performances that he gave until the end.

Thelonious Monk Quartet – The Complete Columbia Albums Collection

This collection focuses on Monk at his commercial peak in the mid-1960s, working with tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse to achieve the most studio-perfect renditions of his songs. Smoother and more lyrical than his earlier recordings, they show Monk at his most crowd-pleasing. But even playing to the big room, Monk remains Monk – deeply weird and unpredictable, and each one of these albums contains new information that you could stand to learn.

Updates to standards such as “Crepuscle With Nellie”, “Epistrophy” and “Bye-Ya” appear periodically, along with covers of jazz standards but tend not to be the highlights (the exception being Jon Hendricks’ vocal update to “In Walked Bud” on 1968’s Underground, a playful addition that doesn’t need to compete against previous recordings, and anyway is a whole lot of fun). It’s the quality and quantity of the songs that were new at the time, presumably written with Rouse in mind, that will keep this box set unfolding like the chapters to a book you can’t put down. 

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