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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.