other words, I am three"
Charles Mingus, Beneath the Underdog
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.