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Mingus Sings on NPR

Listen to Kevin Whitehead discuss “Mingus Sings” on NPR’s Fresh Air.  The original article appears here.


Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy Brings ‘Earnest Intensity’ To ‘Mingus Sings’

Full Transcription:


This is FRESH AIR. Off and on for two decades, trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy has played in New York’s Mingus Big Band, dedicated to the music of the late Charles Mingus. On the band’s new album, Lacy steps out front, singing a batch of Mingus songs. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it’s weirdly right.


KU-UMBA FRANK LACY: (Singing) I’ve seen a lot of pictures, most of the beauties of the world. From places I’ve traveled I still recall the quaint melody as I thrill. Painting my own…

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Composer Charles Mingus loved words as well as music. He was writing lyrics and using singers from the first and would sing or recite his own texts later. He also wrote jazz’s great autobiographical novel, the stylish, funny and disturbing “Beneath The Underdog.” Mingus always got to the heart of things. His lyrics, like his performances, might overflow with feeling. This is from the young Charles Mingus’s “Weird Nightmare.”


LACY: (Singing) You’re there to haunt me when you say she doesn’t want me. I’ve been hurt. Do you know what that means? Weird nightmare, take away the grief you’ve shared. Weird nightmare, mend a heart that’s torn and has paid the price of love a thousandfold. Bring me a love with a heart of gold.

WHITEHEAD: “Weird Nightmare,” first recorded in 1946, sung by Ku-umba Frank Lacy. It’s from the not-so-accurately titled album “Mingus Sings,” co-starring Lacy and the Mingus Big Band. Frank Lacy’s voice and blustery delivery can be comically gruff, but he gets the right earnest intensity. And he knows all the Mingusy inflections from playing in the band with a trombonist’s crack timing and attention to every note’s pitch and vibrato. Lacy has what Mingus prized, a strong, individual voice. This is “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” with Joni Mitchell’s lyric about an Iowan’s hot streak in Vegas.


LACY: (Singing) I talked to a cat from Des Moines. He said he ran a cleaning plant. The cat was clanking with coin. Well, he must’ve had a genie in his lamp ’cause every time I dropped a dime, I blew it. He kept ringing bells, nothing to it. He got three oranges, three lemons, three cherries, three plums. I’m losing my taste for fruit. Watching the dry cleaner do it like Midas in a polyester suit. It’s all luck. It’s just luck. You get a little lucky and you make a little money.

WHITEHEAD: Wayne Escoffery on tenor saxophone. Charles Mingus’s melodies can move in odd ways, but they are oddly singable. The weird dips make voices sound good. The lyricist heard from on “Mingus Sings” also include Elvis Costello, who sang a couple of tongue twisters. And there’s a recitation penned by poet Langston Hughes. I admit, I prefer Mingus’s own words heard on four tunes here. That said, while drummer Doug Hammond was with Mingus in the ’70s, he penned a sharp lyric for the previously unheard tune “Dizzy Profile.” It’s about trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and how revolutionary ideas lose their sting over time and how to maybe fix that.


LACY: (Singing) There was once a time a friend of mine would play a melody and there would be a song. Man, he used to say a crazy friend but when he would play his trumpet sound, we all would gather round. Dizzy made the songs, bebop was his name. But misunderstanding came to turn around, it’s meeting them. What the music said to play about we always never knew until we grew the sound. So remember now that crazy sound that he will begin to understand a storyline again.

WHITEHEAD: Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band with trumpeters Jack Walrath, Alex Norris and Lew Soloff, who passed away not long after the recording. Mingus would teach musicians melodies by singing them. And his horns could sound eerily like his voice. This Mingus Big Band catches that vocalized quality. It doesn’t hurt one of their own is singing out front. There are good soloists new and old, including saxophonists Alex Foster and Craig Handy and a couple of newly unearthed compositions. The title “Mingus Sings” is a shameless cheat, but the music’s worthy of the Mingus brand.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of “Why Jazz?” He reviewed “Mingus Sings” featuring Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band on the Sunnyside label. On tomorrow’s show, after 16 years, Jon Stewart is stepping down as host of “The Daily Show.” What will America do without him? We’ll listen to excerpts of our interviews with him and with one of his executive producers. Hope you can join us.



Mingus Sings Review: Jazz History Online

Read the review here


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.