Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

by delarue

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?

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