Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs: Charles Mingus – Ah Um Review
David Price auditions a limited edition audiophile vinyl pressing of a nineteen-fifties jazz classic…
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs
Charles Mingus, Ah Um
AUD $325 RRP
Charles Mingus Jr. was one of the jazz music's true greats. Born in 1922 in Arizona, he spent much of his life in Los Angeles, California where he made his mark on the world as a double bassist, pianist, composer and bandleader. A musician's musician, Mingus championed the trend for collective improvisation – what he later called “letting the musician be himself” – that gave modern jazz so much of its subversive charm. Legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock all eagerly collaborated before his untimely death in 1979.
When Mingus released Ah Um in 1959, modern jazz was going through its harvest years – the world also saw the release of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck's Time Out within months of this. A little more leftfield in some ways, both the album's Latin title and its cover art – a painting by S. Neil Fujita – alluded to the innovation of the album. On the face of it, this is a jaunty bebop album that's going to light up – rather than slow down – any party, yet the great man's musical heroes hang heavy, with strong shades of gospel and twelve-bar blues. Open Letter to Duke, for example, is a paean of praise for Duke Ellington, while Jelly Roll celebrates Jelly Roll Morton – although Mingus contrarily claimed that Bird Calls was supposed to sound like birds, rather than Charlie Parker!
Ah Um has a big, swinging sound yet feels highly intimate too. The musicianship is super-accomplished – with soaring sax and clarinet work from John Handy, Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi. Mingus's playing underpins the album and gives a more boppy feel than you'd expect from a late-fifties waxing. Dannie Richmond more than delivers on drums, and the trombones of Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper take no prisoners. Even downbeat numbers such as Goodbye Pork Pie Hat are immaculately delivered, showing the emotional range that this iconic album has.
Teo Macero's production is beautifully showcased by this sublime – limited-to-6,000 copies – Mobile Fidelity reissue, which through a serious vinyl system perfectly captures the feel of Columbia's 30th Street Studio, in New York City. When first released, six of the album's nine tracks were edited to fit onto LP, with some being shortened by several minutes. Full unedited versions were later released, but this MoFi version recreates the album as it would have originally come out – albeit across two LPs, and pressed on the company's SuperVinyl. This is claimed to be “the most exacting-to-specification vinyl compound ever devised”, and is said to give enhanced groove definition and lower noise. The deluxe box befits this product's eye-watering price – it's an object of beauty in itself, showcasing the atmospheric artwork and featuring foil-stamped jackets.
The simplicity of studio techniques used at the time of Ah Um's recording delivers a hugely expansive recorded acoustic that this MoFi pressing captures majestically. It's by far the best version that I've heard – digital or analogue – and sounds crisp and fresh, bristling with energy and dripping with harmonics from those raw acoustic instruments. The grain of the saxophones and depth and breadth of the double bass is quite a thing to behold. Yet there's also an innate silkiness that contrasts the crashing dynamics – born of ultra-low noise surfaces and 45RPM cutting. It's a kind of 'velvet fist' of a sound that you can't help but love, especially through any serious vinyl system.
This Mobile Fidelity double LP box is impossible to fault in every way but one – it's extremely expensive. If you're a jazz record collector or Mingus obsessive, then you'll gleefully justify the price – but lesser pressings of Ah Um are available for a fraction of this. As ever, you pays your money and takes your choice!
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.