KU-UMBA FRANK LACY & THE MINGUS BIG BAND: “MINGUS SINGS” (Sunnyside 1407)
The title of this album is a little confusing: “Mingus Sings” is not an archival recording of Charles Mingus vocalizing, but a new recording featuring lyricized versions of Mingus classics sung by Ku-umba Frank Lacy, accompanied by the Mingus Big Band. In an intriguing twist, Lacy is first heard speaking rather than singing, as he intones a Langston Hughes poem—set to a Mingus accompaniment—on “Consider Me”. Then it’s on to a newly discovered work, “Dizzy Profile” whose lyrics detail the contributions of Mr. Gillespie to modern jazz. Better known to jazz fans as a trombonist, Lacy has a deep baritone voice which evokes the dark sounds of Mingus’ bass. He maintains accurate pitch on the unwieldy wide intervals on “Dizzy”, but his diction and placement occasionally suffers in the process. On “Weird Nightmare”, Lacy captures the dramatic flair of Mingus’ lyrics, and the rugged edges of his voice makes us believe the story. However, on “Portrait”, Lacy’s forceful approach seems much too heavy (especially the emphatic accent he gives to the first note). On the other hand, Lacy’s renditions of four songs with lyrics by Joni Mitchell are much better realized than on Mitchell’s own recordings. While Lacy’s vocals might not be to every listener’s taste, the album is also a great showcase for the Mingus Big Band (The band’s best feature is on the program’s other new piece, “Noonlight”, with Lacy singing Sue Mingus’ lyrics at the midpoint and end of the track). There are still a few musicians in the band who worked with Mingus, including Jack Walrath, who plays several remarkable trumpet solos on the album, and Sy Johnson, who arranged most of the tracks and wrote the liner notes. This band sounds like a Mingus ensemble, even without the dominating bass of its late leader, and the soloists, including trumpeters Walrath and Alex Norris, trombonists Coleman Hughes and Conrad Herwig, tenor saxophonists Craig Handy and Wayne Escoffery, pianists Helen Sung and David Kikoski (and yes, vocalist Lacy) bring the passion and energy that was a hallmark of the greatest Mingus groups. Unfortunately, there is one member of the trumpet section who does not solo, and that is Lew Soloff, who passed away between the December 2014 recording sessions and the June 2015 release of the album. While the album is dedicated to Soloff’s memory, it is primarily a tribute to Charles Mingus, whose spirit—if not his voice—speaks clearly through this music.
(Sue Mingus & Gunther Schuller at St. Bart’s Church, Manhattan, 2011)
I grieve along with everyone who loved Gunther Schuller. Gunther was a friend for over thirty years. He was a colossus in music, a force in nearly every genre from classical to jazz, a composer, conductor, arranger, educator, performer. He was also an impassioned advocate for Charles Mingus music, from the first concert he produced with Mingus in the early Sixties, to his editing and conducting of Mingus’s three-hour masterwork “Epitaph” after his death, to his major participation in the annual Mingus High School Competition at Manhattan School of Music. From my own perspective no one did more to elevate and promote Mingus besides Charles Mingus himself.
He was available whenever you needed him, he never said no. If you called he stayed on the phone whatever he might have been doing— and he was always doing something: preparing to conduct a concert, writing a string quartet, organizing notes for a class he was teaching. I once took a photograph of Gunther sound asleep on a plane, his head resting on music scores that were spread out on the fold-out table in front of his seat. My grandfather used to say if you wanted something done, take it to a busy man. Gunther was the embodiment of that saying.
Missing Gunther has just begun. We held a tribute last week at the club where the Mingus Big Band has a weekly residency. We performed arrangements Gunther made for the band. I imagine we will go on performing them for a long while.
— Sue Mingus
(Gunther Schuller at the Mingus Festival 2013, photo by Sue Mingus)
“Gunther Schuller’s passing is a major loss to the world of both classical and jazz music. Not many have covered the musical spectrum as he did. One of Schuller’s earliest collaborations with Charles Mingus was conducting a Mingus composition called “Revelations” in 1955 at the Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts. His last association with Mingus music was editing and conducting Mingus’s magnum opus “Epitaph”— a work that was 4000 measures long, required thirty-one musicians and almost three hours to perform. It was premiered in 1989 at Philharmonic Hall in New York, and was subsequently performed at Wolf Trap, Tanglewood, Chicago Symphony Center, Cleveland Symphony Hall, San Francisco Symphony Hall, and other venues.” — Sue Mingus
I am always happy — and indeed feel privileged— to talk about Charles Mingus and his music, and his amazing life. He was my friend and colleague, and we had a kind of mutual admiration society going — or maybe, better said, a “mutual respect” society. Our lives and careers, as separate as they were, intertwined often at various times and in different ways.
I first met Mingus through John Lewis and Nesuhi Ertegun (the head of Atlantic Records) in the mid-1950s. I had, of course, heard about Mingus for many years, but only as a bass player. And I actually heard Mingus play as early as 1947, when I was 22, and when he was one of the two bass players with the Lionel Hampton band. It was in Detroit, I think, in a theatre, and among the pieces the band played that night there was one that really made my ears perk up, those ears being those of a young composer writing modern, atonal music, who had previously greeted the bebop revolution of the mid-40s, with its flatted fifths and raised ninth chords and other modernisms, with great excitement. Yet what I heard that night in Detroit were some musical sounds— musical ideas, musical textures— that I’d never heard in any jazz orchestra, not even Ellington’s, or Gillespie’s, o Kenton’s, or Woody’s. Well, that piece was Mingus’s Mingus Fingers, a real composition, a kind of mini-concerto for bass and jazz band. It was a thrill to hear something so original, so unpredictable, even as the band was still kind of struggling with this rather unfamiliar and difficult material.
I also still have in my mind’s eye a picture of Mingus silhouetted against the stage lights, a tall large man, an imposing figure, standing up straight as a rod, playing his bass like a classical bass player, not bent over the instrument like most jazz bass players.
And, of course, I was stunned when —in 1953— I heard his incredible playing in the now legendary Massey Hall Concert, with his great explorative solos and astonishing walking bass lines, in super-fast tempos—like around 360 to the quarter note on the metronome. (In the meantime Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell were playing eighth notes —at metronome 720!)
Then, when I heard Pithecanthropus Erectus (in 1956) on Atlantic Records, certainly a seminal and, in retrospect, a pure quintessential Mingus composition; and a few years later the prophetic, ominous and yet somehow tauntingly hilarious Fables of Faubus; and then, a few months later, on a Nat Hentoff-produced session arguably one of the three or four greatest duet improvisations in all of jazz history, Stormy Weather, with Mingus’s incomparably talented partner, Eric Dolphy, then I knew that I was—that we all were— in the presence of one of the very greatest musical artists and composers in the country, indeed in the world.
Of course, it isn’t about who is the “Greatest,” with a capital G. The game of listing who’s first and who’s second, and who’s on top and who’s not, is essentially silly and irrelevant. No, I’m not going to play the Nielsen Ratings game here. The brief recital that you just heard — I could have made it a lot longer—of my incremental discovery of the genial talents of Charles Mingus (genial meaning of genius level) was merely intended to show how one person gradually came to the realization that this man, Mingus, was a very special and new kind of talent.
I will speak about Mingus not only from the point of view of jazz history and the jazz world but, more holistically, from a broader perspective of the whole world of music, and, of course, including the world of classical music. Because Charles was almost unique in the way he was aware of what was going on in classical music, especially in regard to the works of Stravinsky and Schönberg and Varèse, and in his reaching out in his own music in those directions, as is so abundantly clear in certain parts of his magnum opus, Epitaph.
So, what are the hallmarks of this remarkable expression of human talent embodied in this particular musician? As a bass player, certainly ranking with other greats such as Jimmy Blanton and Ray Brown, still Mingus was unique, a pioneer, inimitable — in the true sense of that word. Beyond his blazing technique, his clear lithe tone, he was a great bass-playing composer; or, if you will, a great composing bass player. He was also a bass-playing conductor, in that, as we all must know, he led and coached and dictated to his players, shaping the performance spontaneously as it was occurring, just as Mozart and Bach, at the harpsichord or with the violin, in effect conducted their music.
In his work as a bassist, the composer and the player/performer— i.e. the creator and re-creator —came together in a unique way, which a deep listening to his and Eric Dolphy’s Stormy Weather (of 1960) reveals in a most striking way. Here you hear not only the expected consummate technical assurance and natural ease, but a most vivid creative imagination at work, always forging ahead well beyond the acquired standard procedures; and, even more, finding a way (as is so brilliantly displayed in Stormy Weather), to play three distinctive functional roles simultaneously— on one bass and only ten fingers: to wit,1) keeper of the bass line and the song’s harmonic foundation, 2) ingeniously filling in (or at least implying) the harmonies lying between the melody and the bass line, and 3) inventing countermelodies in conjuction with the main soloist, in this case altoist Eric Dolphy. Incredibly, at some points the counterpoint between the two players is as perfect and true as if the great Johann Sebastian Bach, the master contrapuntist of all time, had written it in himself.
But it is as a composer that I believe Mingus must ultimately be assessed as one of the true giants of music. By “a composer” I mean a real composer, beyond an improvising, instantaneously creating composer— say, a great improviser like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker—and not a mere tunesmith or a writer of lead sheets (with a 32-bar or 64-bar theme and a few designated chord changes), but a writing-out, sitting-down composer, notating in all detail a full, often extended, composition. In both the quality and quantity of Mingus’s compositional achievements, ranging from the briefest miniature pieces to the monumental three-hour, 22-movement long Epitaph, to the remarkable range of his instrumental settings, his orchestrations— from huge double orchestras to small quartets and quintets— in his use of instruments not featured in the jazz canon (like the oboe, the bassoon, the contrabass clarinet) — but I wonder why he didn’t use the horn more?— and above all, in his extraordinary both historic and stylistic/linguistic breadth, Mingus stands alone. And, if that weren’t enough, as a composer Mingus is not only a chronicler of the musical history of jazz—and even to some extent of modern classical music—but also a story teller, a narrator, a philosopher, a poet, a lover, a socio-political activist and commentator. His multifaceted music reflects and embodies both the beauty and honesty, as well as the turmoil, of his life.
In all these respects Mingus excels and stands virtually alone until now, at least in the jazz world—except, arguably, for that other great princely composer, whom we know by the name of Duke Ellington. As that America genius said so often in his life—and would say about Chazz—Mingus was “beyond category.”