Following his earliest efforts on Debut, Savoy, Bethlehem, and other labels, Charles Mingus arrived on Atlantic in 1956 with Pithecanthropus Erectus. By this point (his mid-thirties), he was both a formidable soloist and an innovator in the evolving arena of jazz composition, leading a small group that he referred to as The Jazz Workshop. He was a product of the bebop era but took Duke Ellington as a major role model, using the Ellingtonian term “tone poem” to describe this album’s leadoff title track. It’s a portrayal of nothing less than the rise and fall of man, full of spontaneity (Mingus wrote in the liner notes that he taught all the music for the session to the band by ear, demonstrating on piano, and wrote nothing down). There’s a strong melody and formal structure, but also a deep current of collective improvisation, with extended vamping and an overall aesthetic of the primal blues shout.
In this iteration, The Jazz Workshop was an economical but big-sounding quintet with Jackie McLean and J.R. Monterose on alto and tenor saxes, respectively, Mal Waldron on piano, Willie Jones on drums, and of course the leader on bass. (Waldron and Jones played on Mingus at the Bohemia, recorded live just a month before the Pithecanthropus session.) The Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day” gets a cheeky, semi-abstract reading with car horns via the saxes, traffic whistles, and other extended effects. McLean gets his own tribute ballad, “Profile of Jackie”—again like Ellington, Mingus cherished his close collaborators and would often honor them this way. “Love Chant,” the longest piece, closes the album with a dark and hovering harmonic pattern, breaking away into swinging midtempo solos, the most intense of them Mingus’ own.