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.
For the third time in five years, the Medfield jazz band not only earned one of the few coveted spots in the national Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival in New York, but this time around it also took home an “Outstanding Section” award for trombone. The weekend kicked off with a visit to a New York jazz club Friday night, followed by clinics with renowned artists, jam sessions with students from across the country, live jazz on Saturday and then the competition and awards ceremony on Sunday. Medfield was one of a dozen ensembles in total that performed in the competition.
The Rivers Select 1 Combo spent this past weekend in Manhattan at the 2015 Charles Mingus High School Jazz Competition. The quartet was one of just three ensembles in the non-Performing Arts High school category selected as finalists from the nationwide competition and was the recipient of the Mingus Spirit Award.
The Spirit Award is, in the words of Sue Mingus, “the most important award at the competition” as it is given to the ensemble whose spirit best reflects the unique style of the late Charles Mingus. Rachel Hawley ’15 was awarded an honorable mention for her performances on bass.
Yesterday the Mingus Underground Octet closed the South Coast Jazz Festival in the U.K. Notes from the review:
“The Mingus Underground Octet mined the labyrinthine oeuvre of a truculent talent…
Highlights on the night were Fables Of Faubus, a caustic blast at the endemic racism of the United States, and Better Git It In Your Soul which featured a howling solo from tenor saxophonist Terry Pack.”
Charles Mingus, “Original Fables of Faubus”
In 1957, then-Gov. Orval Faubus ignored a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court by ordering the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the Little Rock Nine from legally entering a newly desegregated school. The absurdity of the event, placing military guards armed to the teeth in order to keep unarmed teenagers from lawfully entering school, drew the ire from many public officials, but the most razing attack came from one of jazz’s most innovative bassists, Charles Mingus.
Featured on Candid Records, the “Original Fables of Faubus” remains one of jazz’s most sardonically crafted songs today. It cheekily pokes fun at Faubus’ finer fascist features with a call-and-response approach: “Name me someone ridiculous, Dannie?/ Governor Faubus!/ Why’s he so sick and ridiculous?/ Because he won’t permit integrated schools!/ Well, he’s a fool!”
As Mingus howls his last response without mincing his words, he reminds us that Faubus wasn’t the only public official responsible. Eisenhower and Rockefeller shared the maligned governor’s shame by turning a blind eye to the events, attempting to minimize the stakes on a national scope. Echoes of “Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)” resonate today given the current state of racial politics. From a historical point of view, it wasn’t that long ago; moreover, it also reminds us that there is still much to be discussed.