The Clown - (1957)
The Clown was Charles Mingus' second masterpiece in a row, upping the already intense emotional commitment of Pithecanthropus Erectus and burning with righteous anger and frustration. With Pithecanthropus, Mingus displayed a gift for airtight, focused arrangements that nonetheless allowed his players great freedom to add to the established mood of each piece. The Clown refines and heightens that gift; instead of just writing heads that provide launch points for solos, Mingus tries to evoke something specific with every piece, and even his most impressionistic forays have a strong storytelling quality. In fact, The Clown's title cut makes that explicit with a story verbally improvised by Jean Shepherd (yes, the same Jean Shepherd responsible for A Christmas Story) from a predetermined narrative. There are obvious jazz parallels in the clown's descent into bitterness with every unresponsive, mean-spirited audience, but the track is even more interesting for the free improvisations led by trombonist Jimmy Knepper, as the group responds to Shepherd's story and paints an aural backdrop. It's evidence that Mingus' compositional palette was growing more determinedly modern, much like his increasing use of dissonance, sudden tempo changes, and multiple sections. The Clown introduced two of Mingus' finest compositions in the driving, determined "Haitian Fight Song" and the '40s-flavored "Reincarnation of a Lovebird," a peaceful but melancholy tribute to Charlie Parker; Mingus would return to both throughout his career. And, more than just composing and arranging, Mingus also begins to take more of the spotlight as a soloist; in particular, his unaccompanied sections on "Haitian Fight Song" make it one of his fieriest moments ever. Mingus may have matched the urgency of The Clown on later albums, but he never quite exceeded it.