'The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady' is one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history. Charles Mingus consciously designed the six-part ballet as his magnum opus, and -- implied in his famous inclusion of liner notes by his psychologist -- it's as much an examination of his own tortured psyche as it is a conceptual piece about love and struggle. It veers between so many emotions that it defies easy encapsulation; for that matter, it can be difficult just to assimilate in the first place. Yet the work soon reveals itself as a masterpiece of rich, multi-layered texture and swirling tonal colors, manipulated with a painter's attention to detail. There are a few stylistic reference points -- Ellington, the contemporary avant-garde, several flamenco guitar breaks -- but the totality is quite unlike what came before it. Mingus relies heavily on the timbral contrasts between expressively vocal-like muted brass, a rumbling mass of low voices (including tuba and baritone sax), and achingly lyrical upper woodwinds, highlighted by altoist Charlie Mariano. Within that framework, Mingus plays shifting rhythms, moaning dissonances, and multiple lines off one another in the most complex, interlaced fashion he'd ever attempted. Mingus was sometimes pigeonholed as a firebrand, but the personal exorcism of Black Saint deserves the reputation -- one needn't be able to follow the story line to hear the suffering, mourning, frustration, and caged fury pouring out of the music. The 11-piece group rehearsed the original score during a Village Vanguard engagement, where Mingus allowed the players to mold the music further; in the studio, however, his exacting perfectionism made The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady the first jazz album to rely on overdubbing technology. The result is one of the high-water marks for avant-garde jazz in the '60s and arguably Mingus' most brilliant moment.
'The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady is a six-part suite (four digital tracks) recorded in 1963. This suite is a feast of virtuoso performances, shifting moods and textures, and detailed background work by Mingus' eleven-piece band. Jerome Richardson is heard to great effect on baritone sax near the beginning of the work; he contributes some beautifully supportive flute (with Dick Hafer) and soprano elsewhere. Quentin Jackson's trombone work is arresting, and the other hornmen (Rolf Ericson and Richard Williams on trumpets, Don Butterfield on tuba, Hafer on tenor sax as well as flute) are excellent. But the pervasive voice of the entire piece is Charlie Mariano on alto sax. Mariano's playing is wrenchingly emotional and evocative, conveying pathos, fervor, and undying conviction. But as wonderful as Mariano's work is here, this is very much a group effort. Especially in the last three sections (digital track four) of the piece, this is music of group interaction. Solo voices emerge from the welter and are drawn back into it. Occasionally the ferocity of each voice clamoring with the others reaches such a furious intensity that it would take just one more step for it to reach the world of the medium-sized group free jazz that would be recorded not long after this album: Albert Ayler's New York Eye and Ear Control, Coltrane's Ascension, etc. Then in an instant the ensemble stops on a dime with a unison statement executed with high-energy precision. It is an extraordinary thing to hear.' All About Jazz
'[This album] confirms my belief that Charlie Mingus is one of the few real jazz composers to arrive since Duke Ellington, and shows yet again that he has the ability to extract the maximum effect from every musician in his employ. Even at the most casual hearing it will be obvious that Mingus's "Black Saint" owes a debt to Ellington; Jerome Richardson's baritone is given the kind of prominence we have come to expect from Harry Carney's, while Charlie Mariano produces a number of startling effects by emulating Johnny Hodges at times. Despite this the writing is undeniably Mingus rather than Duke. As Charles Fox writes in his excellent sleeve-note, "these resemblances (between Mingus and Ellington) should not mislead anyone. They are matters of vocabularly rather than content". True enough. Duke has never made such use of daring and constantly changing rhythmic effects for one thing, nor have many of his works sustained such high tension without periodic breaks into rhapsodic and sometimes soporific interludes. By all accounts Charlie Mingus is an entirely honest, dedicated and sometimes angry man. That is the picture reflected by "The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady", and whatever the significance of the title, I suspect it is far more of a self-portrait than anything else. The music is sometimes angry, primitive and evocative of Ellington's 'jungle' output. At the same time it is beautifully controlled, superbly played and full of interest, which guarantees that it will withstand numberless repeated playings without any loss of effect upon the listener.' Gramophone