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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:

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PORTRAIT”)

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.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DRY CLEANER FROM DES MOINES”)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DIZZY PROFILE”)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

 

 

Sue Mingus on Gunther Schuller

GuntherSue4fixed

(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 in The Independent

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(Gunther Schuller at the Mingus Festival 2013, photo by Sue Mingus)

 

Read the article here

“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

Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller, Who Bridged Classical Music And Jazz, Dies At 89

Gunther helped dignify jazz as America’s classical music and he conducted Charles’s 3-hour masterwork Epitaph. His support was invaluable. It’s a major loss to our music.

 

guntherepitaph2007
(Photo: Gunther conducts Epitaph in 2007)

 

Listen to a conversation with Gunther Schuller about Charles Mingus’s monumental “Epitaph,” 25 years after its world premiere. Recorded in front of a live audience at the Cornelia Street Cafe on January 15, 2014. Click here for the link.