Monday, March 10, 2014

Charles Mingus: Epitaph

Having just finished Tonight at Noon, an interesting and well-written account by Sue Graham Mingus of her years with jazz composer and bassist par excellence Charles Mingus, this seemed like a good time to highlight a project that she and Andrew Homzy, director of the jazz program at Montreal's Concordia University, developed as Homzy worked with Mingus' original manuscripts kept by Sue Mingus.  Then, composer Gunther Schuller was brought in to conduct a concert in 1989, that was a reworking of Mingus' ill-fated and incomplete Epitaph and which was released on Columbia Records in 1990.

Mingus had attempted to create an unusual recording in 1962 that led to a disastrous scenario captured on The Complete Town Hall Concert.  Essentially, the promoter felt the performance was a standard concert and Mingus claimed it was an in-process public rehearsal.  At one point, with copyists scrambling to write down last-minute instructions from Mingus and tension growing, the volatile leader yelled to the assemblage to "get your money back" from the promoter.

This was the first recording of Mingus' music that this blogger owned, having purchased it when it came out.  Then, came the memorable experience of seeing Epitaph performed live at the Hollywood Bowl with Branford Marsalis, then at the peak of his success, opening with a trio.  Having found online the Los Angeles Times review by a less-than-impressed Leonard Feather, this blogger's enjoyment of the concert and the record must be chalked up to naivete, having only been a greenhorn jazz listener of about a year or so by that point.

Regardless of how much this music was reconstructed by Homzy based on a spectrum of material left behind by Mingus that ranged from nearly non-existent to complete, it is a fascinating sampling of the spirit of the man and his multi-faceted and highly complex and creative approach to jazz composition.

The two-disc set was recorded at Alice Tully Hall and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York on 3 June 1989 and the orchestra of thirty musicians included half a dozen who were either at the 1962 rehearsal or were wanted to perform the piece by Mingus. 

Among the veterans who played at the 1989 concert were trombonist Britt Woodman, trumpeters Snooky Young, Jack Walrath and Lew Soloff, alto saxophonist John Handy, tenor sax player George Adams, and pianists Sir Roland Hanna and John Hicks.  Younger players included trumpeter Randy Brecker and Wynton Marsalis, altoist Jerome Richardson, vibraphonist Karl Berger, and guitarist John Abercrombie among others.  The ensemble performs well, navigating through some challenging orchestration of the kind that marked some of Mingus' finest work, such as the amazing The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) that was highlighted here previously.

The biggest crowd reaction comes with a spirited rendition of a classic Mingus piece "Better Git It In Your Soul,' but there are plenty of other fine moments, including "Moods in Mambo,"Monk, Bunk & Vice Versa (Osmotin')," and "The Children's Hour of Dream," and "Ballad (In Other Words, I Am Three)," all of which are emblematic of Mingus' particular talent for creating a large ensemble sound that merged so many different musical facets with striking uses of instrument clusters and elements of blues, bop, orchestral music and other resources in imaginative and creative ways.

The booklet has a short essay by Homzy about the circumstances surrounding Mingus' creation over years of Epitaph and the 1962 misadventure, followed by a much-longer and occasionally highly-technical "guide" to the work by Schuller.  The latter concluded by observing that "this recording, while not the perfect realization of Epitaph—can that ever be achieved?—is an enthusiastic, dedicated, loving recreation."

That it is and, although it may be true that Mingus' drive and talent for pushing musicians might have made this recording more lively and bolder had he lived to conduct it, it is a singular achievement, for which Sue Mingus, Homzy, Schuller, and the talented ensemble of musicians deserve much credit.  Obviously, in the end, Charles Mingus' tremendous compositional gifts are at the heart of what makes Epitaph his masterpiece, even if unrealized during his lifetime.

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