Song: "What Love?"
Album: Mingus At Antibes
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It seems that whenever a certain sound does not quite fit perfectly into any other genre, a majority of critics simply write it off under the term "avant." However, while there are certainly some situations where such a title is worthy, in a majority of cases, when one understands what "avant" truly means, it is almost insulting to see the other songs that have been thrown in alongside them. While the term "avant' can be properly applied within any style of music, it is almost more a mindset or an attitude that defines the style, though there are certainly a handful of musical elements that must be present as well. When one looks across all of music history, there may be no better or more consistent example of what it means to be an avant musician than when one experiences the stunning catalog of the great Charles Mingus. As a pianist, bass player, and composer, Mingus remains in a class all his own, and his influence and contributions to the entire world of music can still be seen within many forms of modern music. It is due to the massive range within his performances that it becomes absolutely impossible to cite any single song as his finest, or even a definitive moment, and yet one can argue that as is true in much of jazz, it is in the live recordings where the true brilliance resides. With this in mind, one can easily make the case that Charles Mingus can be heard in top form, and backed by what may be his best band in the 1960 live recording of his composition, "What Love?"
As the centerpiece of Mingus' legendary Mingus At Antibes album, the first thing that strikes the listener is the fact that this is a pianoless outfit, and the lack of this instrument eventually becomes one of the most stunning aspects of the song. The duo of trumpet player Ted Curson and the venerable Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet is without question one of the greatest pairings in jazz history, and as they slide through the opening bars of "What Love?," the delicate power of the composition becomes clear. There is really nobody formally taking the lead at any point, as each of the four players are in many ways playing in their own style. It is this clashing of styles that gives "What Love?" a rather multi-layered sound, and yet the perfection with which they all come together as a single sound almost makes this difference impossible to detect. Drummer Dannie Richmond presents the rhythm in a way that has rarely been heard, as he makes the idea of "where one is not playing" actually work within the percussion. Truly tuning the drum kit into an instrument, Richmond pulls so many different sounds and emotions, that this in itself is a landmark performance. The level of concentration at play throughout "What Love?" is absolutely unparalleled, as the musicians are able to seamlessly weave through and around each others' playing. It is also the way that the band jumps through different rhythmic patterns that makes "What Love?" so uniquely brilliant, and one can argue that the reason it had not been recorded earlier was due to Mingus needing the proper balance of talent behind his composition.
It is the fact that, while it is his bass solo that is one of the highlights of the song, Charles Mingus never overpowers his bandmates that pushes "What Love?" to such great heights. Though he certainly was, at least in name, the leader of the quartet, the musical equality is quite clear, and this unselfish feel helps the entire group to some of the most stunning improvisations ever recorded. Mingus' solo that occurs about mid-way through "What Love?" is nothing short of extraordinary, and the energy he is exchanging with the crowd becomes clear. The way in which he flies over the fret-board, completely giving himself to the mood and muse of the song stands as one of the greatest in history, and it also proves his exceptional abilities as a player. Moving far beyond any traditional concept of jazz, even pushing past the most creative hard-bop sounds, it is the second half of the song that perfectly defines the idea of "avant jazz," and there are few recordings that can rival "What Love?" in terms of true free form performance. When Dolphy takes the solo off the heals of Mingus, one can quickly hear just how much he idolized him, as Dolphy's playing manages to mirror Mingus' pattern, and yet push the composition even further into the realm of avant. Ensuring that the melodic aspect of the song is still firmly rooted, Dolphy ignores all common rhythmic patterns and "becomes" the embodiment of "free jazz." It is also the small touches that Mingus puts behind Dolphy's solo that cement the relationship between the two, as well as Mingus quiet control of the entire musical work.
Strangely enough, the genesis of "What Love?" is almost as unique as the resulting performance found on Mingus At Antibes. As the story goes, Mingus actually composed the piece well over a decade before it was recorded, and it was the urging of Eric Dolphy that made him reconsider revisiting the work. This gap also supports the idea that Mingus was waiting until he had a band around him that was worthy of tackling such a complex arrangement, and this is where one is forced to explore just how many layers are involved in "What Love?" From this, the actual form of the song comes into focus, and the case can be made that each of the four musicians are, in fact, playing their own arrangement, which Mingus was able to craft into a singular work of musical genius. The fact that they are able to make such a massively complex piece sound so uncomplicated is a testament to their talents, as there is a relaxed air that runs throughout the entire song. However, working in brilliant contrast to this mood, as the song moves into its final section, the energy from both the audience and performers begins to overflow, with Mingus, and people in the crowd beginning to shout, pushing the players even harder. This in many ways is the finest representation of the true power and beauty of music, and though it is the very definition of "avant jazz," it is executed with such perfection that there are few jazz compositions as captivating and accessible as Charles Mingus' spectacular 1960 live recording of "What Love?"