Chances were that if Mingus asked you for some sugar he'd give it back to you laced with strychnine just to test your loyalty. But he rarely sounded as carefree as he did on 1962's Mingus Oh Yeah - yes to the dazzlingly formal collapses of Black Saint, an aye to the lifetime's realisation of Let My Children Hear Music, an emphatic, euphoric stamp of the foot to anything involving Dolphy, but Mingus Oh Yeah has always been my personal favourite of his records, and I am far from alone in this belief. Perhaps it's because it was the nearest thing Mingus ever did to a pop record, and its importance in this respect is that the album served as a gateway to the rest of his music for so many non-jazz musicians, and especially for those coming in from the rock and pop arenas.
Despite being one of the greatest bassists jazz is ever likely to know, Mingus plays, or more precisely hammers, piano throughout Oh Yeah, and also sings, or more exactingly yells, purrs, shrieks and mumbles. Doug Watkins took care of bass duties, and the band was as shrewed in its composition as any line-up Mingus ever led; Booker Ervin tends the music's roots on right channel tenor, Jimmy Knepper acts as a cautious middleman on trombone, and, as always, Richmond shuffles everything along as only he could.
And there is Roland Kirk on everything else. One could rightly pound one's chest in frustration that this was the only small group recording Kirk ever made with Mingus since he seems to cover the third "me" of Mingus more aptly and comprehensively than anyone this side of Dolphy; he vies with the Baron in dominating the whole landscape, filling in every stray wisp of silence with his sirens, nose flutes, invented saxophones and multiple chordal blowings.
Oh Yeah is also one of the most traditional as well as one of the most vandalistic of Mingus' recordings; "Eat That Chicken" pays gleeful homage to Waller with Richmond's deadpan two-step, Kirk's post-Gene Sedric/pre-Ayler exaggerated vibrati and Knepper's "Your Father's Moustache" reluctant band book vocal ("Root-toot-tooty," he pronounces in the manner of Bob Newhart). "Devil Woman" finds Mingus entrancing himself to his own doom, pining for "some dough" and quoting "Just A Gigolo" to provoke beautifully mournful solos from all three hornmen. At the other extreme, if Iggy Pop didn't listen closely to the closing "Passions Of A Man" before making "L.A. Blues" with the Stooges then I'm Sean Rowley's third uncle; abstract flutters and indecipherable mutters as the world collapses next door.
But "Hog Callin' Blues" is one of the great opening album tracks; after vocally setting up the rhythm, Mingus pounces on the lower end of his piano as Richmond sets up a train shuffle beat and the horns riff in and out of synch, always punctuated by Mingus' yells and prompts. Soon the raspberry of a siren sets off Kirk, initially gently but purposefully swinging on tenor before Mingus cues him to go closer to the edge of the cliff and Kirk responds by producing ground-shifting lower register honks and growls, somewhere between Sam Butera and Pharaoh Sanders. As Ervin and Knepper nervously nudge their way back into the picture, Kirk plays three tenors at once, with a swanee whistle up one nostril, striding in and out of tonality as the other horns build up some spontaneous riffs before leaving him alone again to divebomb into Mingus' mind, slap tongueing, wailing and fucking gloriously with the scenario until Richmond finally drives the train into a messy buffer, everyone rolling out onto the platform, laughing and carousing before a final ahem of an Amen. Jazz's very own haulage of pig iron punctum.