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I Am Three
The Mingus Big Band, Orchestra & Dynasty

Release Date: 6/7/05

Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside Records/Universal
Music Jazz France

Available on I Am Three

1. Song With Orange
2. MDM
3. Chill of Death
4. Paris in Blue
5. Tensions
6. Orange Is the Color of Her Dress
7. Cell Block F 'Tis Nazi USA
8. Todo Modo
9. Wednesday Prayer Meeting
10. Pedal Point Blues

"In other words, I am three"
Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog

“In other words, I am three,” begins Charles Mingus's autobiography, referring to his different incarnations — the vulnerable man, the angry and passionate man, the observer. He could have said thirty-three, or three times thirty-three — he seemed to have had infinite sides to his personality, all of them speaking inside his head and throughout his compositions, creating one of the most powerful, personal and original voices in American music. And yet he was attached to three — one of his loveliest ballads is called Self-Portrait In Three Colors. His final album, mistitled Me, Myself And I was corrected to read: Me, Myself, An Eye, after Mingus impatiently responded from his last residence in Mexico that the company didn't understand a thing. Me, Myself, an EYE, he said. "The eye of god. The eye of the beholder."

Here we present three interpretations of Mingus’s music by three different repertory bands: 1. The Mingus Big Band, which just completed a fourteen-year tenure of Thursday nights at Manhattan's Fez under Time Cafe, 2. The Mingus Orchestra, distinguished from its older sibling by its more exotic instrumentation that includes bassoon, bass clarinet and French horn, as well as guitar, and 3. The seven-piece Mingus Dynasty — the original repertory band founded in l979. A defining factor of all Mingus repertory groups is the ability of the musicians to perform this hugely varied and challenging music with the spirit and intent of its composer while at the same time insisting upon their own voices, humor and individual ways of performing that keep the music alive and growing.

For the first time, all arrangements for the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Dynasty were created by performing musicians within the bands: bassist Boris Kozlov, trombonist Earl McIntyre, trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist John Stubblefield. The two Mingus Orchestra arrangements are by Sy Johnson.

Most notably — for the first time after a dozen years of performing in the Mingus Big Band — John Stubblefield contributed three stunning arrangements, causing us to regret the years we weren't aware of the treasure within our midst. Although John was in the hospital during the recording of this CD and unable to perform on his saxophone, he arrived in his Batmobile — as he calls his wheelchair — to conduct his three arrangements. It was an extraordinary autumn afternoon at Peter Karl's studio in Brooklyn. Music director Alex Foster describes it as one of the most moving, enlightening recording experiences of his life. John Stubblefield talked down all three pieces, gave an overview of Mingus's intentions as he himself understood and interpreted them, and inspired a roomful of musicians to play their hearts out for the next six hours. “No one analyzes music anymore and puts it in historic perspective,” Foster said. “It was a masterful way to deal with the music.” The three pieces are Song With Orange — a blues suite “with a new blues song form”, as Stubbs described it — that begins this recording, Pedal Point Blues which ends it, and Orange Is The Color Of Her Dress.

Of the swinging life he brings to these arrangements, Stubblefield says: “I don't get in Charles Mingus's way. I might add something, a little pepper, a little salt, some cayenne. But I follow his lead. Because you can't interfere with that spirit.”

Song With Orange was written for a l959 television drama in which, according to Mingus, a rich girl taunts her poet/piano-playing boyfriend by challenging him to write something with “orange” in the title, knowing that nothing in the world rhymes with orange. Here, it begins with a lovely introduction by George Colligan on piano followed by Jeremy Pelt's obbligato over the opening choruses, Abraham Burton on tenor, Conrad Herwig on trombone, Kenny Rampton's no-holds-barred trumpet, Colligan again on piano, and a group improvisation featuring Jaleel Shaw on alto. Stubblefield discussed how the baritone's range had expanded at the time Mingus was writing this piece “Low A came out in the late Fifties,” he said. “ I think that's why Mingus wrote it into Song With Orange. Remember Jerome Richardson?” — he was referring to one of the great baritone players of the day — “That low A — on the alto and the baritone — that was a sound!” Ronnie Cuber nodded. He had sat in with Mingus at Birdland around l962 on a blues in the key of C, hitting that low A which, by this time, was on his baritone, too. “Mingus stared at me,” Ronnie remembered. “He loved that A.”

Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk although a different composition entirely, is linked to Song With Orange because of its title. One of the most challenging pieces on this recording and one that required the most attention, it has a complex conception that makes use — as described by Andrew Homzy in Charles Mingus: More Than A Fake Book — of an “arsenal of devices during the solo choruses, including: stop time figures, tempo changes, mood changes and the stretching of the form itself.” George Colligan plays the piano intro, followed by Alex Foster's solo on alto, George again on piano, Randy Brecker on trumpet and Wayne Escoffery on tenor.

The second part of the recording was made at Kaleidoscope Sound Studios in New Jersey, a month later. Bassist Boris Kozlov, who played Charles Mingus's lion's head bass on both recordings, arranged Tensions, a complex, high wire piece that has not been performed in nearly fifty years. Brian Priestly, in his critical biography of Mingus, describes it as an involved ensemble in which four-bar phrases are regularly contradicted by the four-bars-plus-six bars of the trombone and tenor figure. Thematic figures are introduced, pyramid-fashion. Although it was last recorded on the Atlantic album, Blues and Roots, in l959, surprisingly two other musicians asked about arranging Tensions during the same week. It was in the air. It was during the final days preceding the election. “It's a theme for our time,” said one of the musicians. “We could substitute it for the sound track on the nightly news.”

In the sometimes mystical immersion arrangers have reported during their interaction with Mingus compositions, Boris imagined what Charles Mingus might have experienced. “I'm sure he never wrote it down; I’m sure he told musicians about it, section by section,” he said. “It's full of rhythmic tensions, harmonic tensions. It's aggressive, in-your-face music. It's overpowering.” After agitated nights in which dreams sometimes provided musical solutions, a final vision explained the horn voicings. “Spit it!” the vision suggested. “That was exactly right!” Boris said. “The horns needed to spit out the sound.”

Scott Robinson states the theme on baritone, the alto hovers above, Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards solo and maintain tension underneath the band, Abraham Burton solos on tenor. Tom Swift, our engineer who has mixed and mastered the last six Mingus Big Band CD's, calls it an Hieronymus Bosch ending.

Paris in Blue, a little innocent tune recorded in l952, mourned the break-up of Mingus's first marriage. It was sung by Jackie Paris (providing the title) who would later sing the lyrics to Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love on a Mingus album in the mid-Seventies, Changes Two (Atlantic). On this new chart arranged by band member Earl McIntyre, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, trombonist-vocalist in the band, gives Mingus's words a modern holler and Seamus Blake accompanies him on tenor in the final section.

MDM, by arranger Robin Eubanks, is a long blues with themes from Duke, Monk and Mingus (Mainstem, Straight No Chaser, and 5lst Street Blues, respectively), as the title acknowledges, and features a trombone solo by Conrad Herwig and repeated trio sequences with Miguel Zenon on alto, Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone and Jack Walrath on trumpet trading blues choruses with each instrument in a different key. It opens up full-throttle with Orrin Evans on piano.

Free Cell Block F 'Tis Nazi USA refers to a particular cell block in the deep South in the Seventies, but it could just as easily apply to cell blocks in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib today. Occasionally, Mingus attached political titles to compositions after writing them, in order to call attention to a particular event — as in Remember Rockefeller At Attica — although the music itself was not programmatic. Boris Kozlov's arrangement for the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty band was first performed at an event honoring John Stubblefield at New York's Sweet Rhythm in June, 2004. Craig Handy's flute solo and a lyrical Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone put their stamp on this version.

Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, with its fast 6/4 time signature, planned chaos and hand-clapping backgrounds is one of Mingus's best known gospel pieces and a frequent closer of Mingus Big Band sets. Here it springs full-blown in a collective arrangement by Mingus Dynasty members who have been performing it for many years. It features Kenny Rampton and Orrin Evans.

The Chill Of Death was written by Mingus at age seventeen and was included in his two-hour opus Epitaph. It is a purely classical piece with no reference to jazz. Brian Priestley suggests Mahler and Wagnerian influences. At the time he wrote it, Mingus no doubt believed his musical path lay in this direction. Its inclusion here underlines not only the range and variety of Mingus’s composition but the extraordinary demands it makes on performing musicians who must have classical reading skills, jazz improvisational skills and voices of their own. For this version, Ku-umba Frank Lacy set aside his trombone in order to conduct and recorded his own part afterwards.

Todo Modo combines both jazz and classical elements and was written originally as a sound track for an Italian movie of the same name. During his last six months in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Mingus listened to Todo Modo almost daily from his wheelchair in the sun. It may represent a musical future he was considering. He once wrote a treatise on what it means to be a composer in which he expressed his view that classical music, to maintain its vitality, should be open to improvisation. He also stressed that such improvising should be equal to the demands of the composer. While he encouraged freedom in a musician's soloing, he expected the choice of notes to be related to his melodic conception and to the spirit of the composition. Gunther Schuller first defined such collaboration between genres as Third Stream music.

Pedal Point Blues begins with a two-minute shuffle vamp with repeated riffs until it becomes a twelve-bar blues. “Cuber brings forty years of experience to that sound,” one of the musicians observed. “It doesn't get any better.” The baritone is followed by veteran John Hicks on piano, Ku-umba Frank Lacy's “airplane solo” working its extraordinary way up the scale through the changes, Johnathan Blake on drums and Craig Handy on alto. Music director Alex Foster calls this version of Pedal Point Blues a “flat-out shout!”

“Pay attention to the shuffle!” Stubblefielld shouts from his chair. “It's not a Chicago style shuffle. It's a NEW ORLEANS style shuffle!” His eyes flash. “And the dynamics ! — does any musician here know anyone who ever managed to play soft besides Eddie Henderson and Chet Baker?” By the end of the day, three great pieces were in the can and Stubbs, grumbling but pleased, headed back in his van sending his goodbyes to all the cats and all the kittens.