Although he had already made some very good albums, with “Mingus Ah Um”, Charles Mingus finally made the album on which he began to show his full potential. Not only did he write and arrange some innovative and emotionally powerful tunes, but he also introduced a new modern eclecticism to the world of jazz. The strong emotional nature to tunes like “Better Git it in Your Soul” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” have made those tracks classics played by many because they carry such personal statements. The up-front emotional quality to the music on ’Ah Um’ was part of a new thing that was also coming up from the avant-garde scene that was just beginning to break out. Meanwhile, the aforementioned eclecticism featured on here may not seem so striking in today’s jazz world where musicians borrow freely from any time period and culture, but “Ah Um” was one of the earliest albums where an artist drew from the past to produce something for the future. Although in all fairness, Mingus would be glad if it was pointed out that Duke Ellington was an influence on a lot of this sort of synthesis.
Along with the aforementioned pair of classics, there are several more great tunes on here; “Bird Calls” is high speed avant-bop, “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is dark driving hard bop, perfect for a noire crime film and “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” is an excellent abstract modern ballad with odd shifting tone colors in the sax section layered beneath the melody. There’s more great tracks, but then there are some odd ones too; “Fables of Faubus” sounds like cabaret/circus music, “Pussy Cat Blues” is simple late night drunk blues and “Jelly Roll” is a goofy mix of antiquated styles over-played like music for tourists.
Adding the purposely antiquated and almost frivolous to such a serious album may seem odd at first, but it is through this sort of eclectic collage effect that the artist presents a broader world. The same thing will happen a decade later in the world of rock and pop when artists will reach for a more ambitious artistic picture. When the Beatles released mind blowing albums like “Sgt Peppers” and “White Album”, odd tracks like “Honey Pie”, “Martha my Dear”, and “Sgt Peppers” (the song) didn’t detract from the artistic integrity of the albums, but instead, these song’s dated and trite sounds added to the insane circus like atmosphere. Much is the same with the modern collage artist who might have a religious symbol positioned against a broken piece of bright plastic, amongst other things, to convey the enormous complex scope of “reality”. Taking all this into account, you could say “Ah Um” was one of the first jazz recordings geared towards the album, not the song, an early “concept album” of sorts.
Some CD re-issues give you a couple extra tunes; “GG Train” is a fun hard bop romp with a lengthy alto solo from John Handy, and “Girl of my Dreams” gets into some of Mingus’ constantly changing arrangements, both tunes make a nice addition to the album. In the 80s, when avant-garde artists like Henry Threadgill led the re-discovery of older styles played with a free abandon, you can bet he was well aware of Mingus’ influence. With so many artists today working with 'mini-big band' ensembles that freely mix complex arrangements with improvisation, Mingus’ influence is bigger than ever.