The Clown

Artist: Charles Mingus

Year: 1957

Genre: Post-Bop

Grade: A

The album cover of The Clown features a clown. No shit. But look behind the face-paint to find the stern, solemn face staring out underneath and you’ll start to get an idea of what Charles Mingus has accomplished here. From an early age, the jazz bassist was obsessed with the circus, but most of it focused on sad clowns and freaks. Not even an elephant riding a unicycle could lighten this guy’s mood. A track-by-track analysis:

“Haitian Fight Song”: driven by the bass, this raucous 12-minute opener bumbles its way through a variety of phases, soft and loud and always aggressive. It’s not quite the statement that “Pithecanthropus Erectus” was, but it still packs quite a wallop. Horns buzz and saxophones blare, and the end result will have you howling at the moon.

“Blue Cee”: an instantly recognizable jazz melody leads the way in the most conventional, bop-friendly track on the album. In fact, I had always thought this song was by somebody else.

“Reincarnation of a Lovebird”: An off-the-wall introduction full of atonal piano and mismatched notes gives way to the best song on the album. This is early Mingus at his most adventurous and surreal — you never know where the melody will go next.

“The Clown”: an experimental circus march with an improvised, spoken-word narrative by Jean Shepherd, this is one of Mingus’ most difficult tracks. The story is a slow-burn that pays off at the end, while the semi-avant-garde music keeps things interesting throughout the 12-minute duration.

Like the album it comes from, “The Clown” takes several listens to fully appreciate. All in all, this is Mingus’ darkest album, full of ambiguous emotions and depressive tendencies. A major, albeit underrated, artistic statement from one of jazz’s great innovators.

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