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In Charles Mingus’ autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, there’s an image of the sort he often used to drive his compositions. In the late ’40s, the bassist and composer recalled, he made his initial trek to New York, riding subways the whole time before boarding a train for D.C. “It was my boy’s first trip to the Apple,” he wrote, “but all he saw of it was underground.”

It’s the sort of image that might have inspired one of the cuts assembled on Passions of a Man, a six-disc set that compiles six albums (plus cuts from a Teddy Charles LP) made during Mingus’ first tenure with Atlantic, along with an hour-plus interview in which this often-roaring creator shows a very friendly side, praising everyone from Charlie Parker to T-Bone Walker.

Although this box, by resequencing cuts in chronological order, screws with the programming of Mingus’ original albums, it hardly hurts the music or Mingus’ singular conceptual moves. Mingus’ image as a hardass is only part of the truth about the man, which is made clear by his music’s spacious pictures, so much like those of his hero Ellington and so much his own. During the half-decade or so covered by Passions of a Man, Mingus could barely stop the flow, as he cut classics for other labels, like EmArcy, his own Candid Records, and the 1959- 60 one-two punch for Columbia, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty.

Shortly after the era covered by Passions, Mingus cut a session with Ellington and Max Roach—available on the Blue Note CD Money Jungle—in which he deferred to the master while challenging him with accompaniment that often sounded as if he’d pull the strings off his instrument with the next note.

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That kind of dichotomy held sway throughout the period heard here. Mingus matched surefooted suaveness with wild noises, like the traffic sounds and toy whistles (standing in for sirens) on “A Foggy Day,” from 1956’s Pithecanthropus Erectus, his Atlantic debut. Similarly, the nearly cool-jazz textures of that album’s title track are quickly graffitied by the alto and tenor solos of Jackie McLean and J.R. Monterose. Later, the whistles would return on “Passions of a Man,” coupled with Spanish mutterings that make Mingus sound like someone shilling dirty photographs on a Tijuana street corner.

On the 1960 Antibes concert—a great set that didn’t see release until after Mingus’ 1979 death from Lou Gehrig’s disease—you can hear it gettin’ good to him, as he grunts appreciatively at the horn section’s opening theme on “Prayer for Passive Resistance,” even before the trademark verbal testifying begins. Mingus also leads the group in a “Better Git Hit in Your Soul” faster and, if possible, even more frenzied than the previous studio version on Mingus Ah Um—a feel that carries over to the next cut, a torrid “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” The “I’ll Remember April” that ends the show is relatively subdued but anything but out of place with such definitive holy roller statements.

Blues & Roots, which appeared a few months before the Antibes performance, was both an effort at proving Mingus could make clear the elemental blues base of his challenging music and a half-snarling position paper on the importance of such music in an era when it was given short shrift by some intellectual jazz fans. Oh Yeah, issued in 1962, was even more of a loving attack on the form. For this record, Mingus hired bass player Doug Watkins and moved himself over to piano and, more surprising, vocals. Hardly a laid-back King Cole Trio sort of date, Oh Yeah found Mingus wailing the likes of “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” and, in a prophecy of avant-food-popsters Cibo Matto, the hilarious “Eat That Chicken.” In Passions’ recorded interview, Mingus expresses subversive glee at the possibility of Atlantic’s releasing a single from Oh Yeah; his choice was “Devil Woman,” a tune about a pimp waiting for his money.

Mingus’ forward motion didn’t end with his early Atlantic days; in fact, after his return to the label in the ’70s, he continued running sessions from his wheelchair until shortly before his passing. The years of Mingus’ wandering around the studio, carrying his fiddle off-mike, were over, but not the sound. He’d no doubt be extremely pleased that his orchestral work Epitaph received a belated full debut in 1991, as well as with the handsome packaging of Passions of a Man (expect a Grammy nomination next year) and the continuing work that comes the way of the surviving Mingus band. This, after all, was the artist who once voiced this modest appraisal of his own work: “I don’t know if it’s supposed to appeal to millions, and if it does, that ain’t wrong either. Jesus Christ appeals to millions, don’t he? [And] he’s a pretty bad cat.” CP