Album Review #39: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady by Charles Mingus (1963)

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Charles Mingus

It’s about time we got around to Charles Mingus. Truly one of the greats of the world of jazz, his bass playing was unparalleled and his composing was mind-blowing. With this album, released 1963, he took the already well-respected genre of jazz and brought it to a level of challenge, aggression and complexity almost unheard-of by his peers and contemporaries. At the time, jazz was a lot of things: it was soft, gentle and soothing, it was loud, exciting and danceable. But until Mingus, it was never angry or even scary. With this masterpiece, Charles Mingus confronted the jazz scene with a mind-boggling opus of constant movement, frantic performances and musical concepts that until that point in music history had only been touched upon by some of classical’s great composers. Put simply, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a complete game-changer for not just jazz, but popular music as a whole, filled with innovations, surprises and a style/structure that ensures it an incredible re-listening potential. (It is important to note, however, that a previous album of his, Mingus Ah Um, is just as highly regarded by critics, but for some baffling reason was sadly not included in this book. There’s a good chance I’ll get around to talking about that one sometime soon, but for now, Black Saint is more than deserving of our full attention.)

Side A

Track-by-track wise, this is a difficult album to review. It isn’t quite split into “tracks” per se, but rather into four continuous movements like some sort of modern-day jazz symphony. The whole record is intended as a single piece, so you can’t really have a “favorite track” here. I’ll at least try to analyse it, however, so let’s begin with the first of four movements, “Solo Dancer.” The opening to this album is just fantastic in every way. It starts off slowly and gradually, punctuated with buzzing notes from a roaring tuba played by Don Butterfield with a brilliant, distinctive timbre. Over the first few minutes the elements pile on and build in speed and intensity, ever-so-patiently stirring up a maddening whirlwind of sound that is both daunting and completely breathtaking to hear. Most of the album is improvised, but every performer on display has clearly mastered their craft to the peak of their abilities, and every solo is exhilarating. The second movement, “Duet Solo Dancers,” starts off much more mellow than the previous track, with a gentle piano intro and easy-going tempo and melody. Then, about two minutes in, it takes a turn for the menacing, with a slow one-two rhythm that stomps up and down, speeding up and building to a massive, disorganized crescendo that wields an energy so great that it leaves listeners speechless. The movement’s last couple minutes return to the main melody of the opening movement, which I actually quite like as it serves to further strengthen the full album as one long piece intended to be experienced as one. The final movement of Side A, “Group Dancers,” opens with another piano solo, but this time much more dark and ominous than the last. When the flutes come in with their swift, light but still slightly sinister melody, they give the impression of pirouetting ballet dancers, and the effect is strangely beautiful and awe-inspiring. Then comes what is honestly one of my absolute favorite parts of this record: Jay Berliner’s flamenco-style acoustic guitar work. With its angry, rapid and hypnotic strumming that reflects Latin Jazz, it’s a definite highlight of the album in my personal opinion. Although it only appears briefly in this movement, don’t you worry, because it’ll make a glorious return on Side B. Speaking of which…

Charles Mingus likesuccess[dot]com

Mingus and his legendary bass. Image source: likesuccess.com

Side B

“Trio and Group Dancers” starts off the record’s second half with a familiar motif from earlier in the record. Let me stress that when he does this, it is not a mark of laziness, but rather it helps to give the album a strong sense of continuity. It makes the album truly feel like one continuous symphony rather than a collection of tracks, and the effect is wonderful. After a few minutes of as-always well performed variations on the theme, it segues into another brilliant guitar solo. Berliner’s playing style simply demands attention, hence why his guitar usually shows up solo on this record: he’s just so good that his presence would distract from everyone else playing. The couple of times he does collaborate with another instrumentalist, it is usually only a duet, either that or everyone else just gets ultra-quiet as if in awe. The rest of the movement is dominated by a lengthy, improvised piano solo, expertly performed by the auteur himself, Charles Mingus. Every piano solo on display in this record is excellent, but this one takes the cake, making expert use of every second it has and refusing to lose the listener’s attention for a second. The fifth movement that follows, “Single Solos and Group Dance,” continues building on the momentum of the previous movement, once again finding unique ways to riff on the recurring motif. The guitar makes a return, this time accompanied by an easy-to-miss marimba. It isn’t as shy this time, participating with the band to great effect. Over the next few minutes the music grows deranged and unhinged, making a ruckus and chaotically beating the time signature into submission. The line between this movement and the final movement, “Group and Solo Dance,” is a little blurred, and I’m not actually quite sure where one ends and the other begins, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter much. The album works much better as a single piece anyways. It closes with one final rendition of the original opening melody from the first movement, serving as a brilliant bookend to an often hectic, crazy, but constantly masterful album.

So I guess you can probably tell what I think of this one. What can I say? I loved it to no end. It’s probably my favorite jazz album on the list so far, and it’s an album I can absolutely see myself revisiting years down the line. It may seem intimidating at first, but it is a consistently exciting, engaging, and enthralling recording that knows what it’s doing and does it damn well. All I can say is that you need to hear it, and it will probably take me a long, long time before I find a better jazz album.

Favorite Tracks: “Movement C: Group Dancers,” “Movement D: Trio and Group Dancers,” “Movement A: Solo Dancer”

Next Up: Live at the Apollo by James Brown (1963)

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