Mingus’ 1963 Compositions Celebrated at Caramoor Jazz Festival
Charles Mingus was a complicated man, and his music reflected it. Did he, for example, write political music? Apart from his musical takedown of a politician or two, Sue Mingus, his widow and the keeper of his flame, thinks not.
“He was too much of a composer for that,” she said late last month, in the days leading up to the Caramoor Jazz Festival (July 26–28).
But art can speak to people in ways its creator might not have intended. And it was difficult not to sense an agitator’s pen at work when vocalist and trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy stepped up to the Caramoor microphone and, backed by the Mingus Big Band, delivered a raw version of the Mingus classic “Freedom.”
“Freedom for your daddy/ Freedom for your mama/ Freedom for your brothers and sisters,” he sang, “But no freedom for me.”
The piece, which closed the three-day festival in New York’s Westchester County, first appeared on MingusMingusMingusMingusMingus, one of three albums Caramoor was honoring on the 50th anniversary of their 1963 release. The others were The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady and Mingus Plays Piano. As a group, these three albums marked a moment when Mingus’ creative powers were at their height, as were social tensions: Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and President Kennedy’s assassination both occurred in 1963.
Those albums remain powerful evocations of their moment. But the program delivered at Caramoor by the 14-piece Mingus band was less artifact than living commentary—by turns droll (“E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too”) and borderline affectionate (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”). The fact that those two tunes had lyrics penned by Elvis Costello and Joni Mitchell, respectively, didn’t soften their impact.
Arranger Sy Johnson, a Mingus veteran, offered arrangements that brilliantly captured the originals’ spirit, and all were expertly executed by the Mingus Big Band. The arrangements felt so authentic that for those familiar with the Mingus oeuvre, Caramoor’s Venetian Theater for a time became a kind of comfort zone.
Mingus the provocateur might have hated that; even at his most accessible, he liked a bit of creative tension. In “Haitian Fight Song,” for example,” he shaped a seemingly unremarkable groove with a busy boogie-woogie-like beat. But he laid a potential mine for any bassist who would tackle the piece. The challenge was, in setting the tempo at the top of the chart, to avoid either lagging or lurching forward so rapidly that the horns are left unable to pick up the melodic thread when they enter.
As it played out, bassist Boris Koslov sidestepped the mine—emerging, in the process, as a central organizing force of the evening.
Koslov also proved adept with the pen. His transcription of “Meditations For Moses,” fashioned from the solo musings of Mingus Plays Piano, opened a window into Mingus’ mind as he wandered the keyboard, making sense of the modal mania that would soon sweep jazz. Tenor saxophonist Brandon Wright, among the band’s younger members, made sense of it all with some of the most challenging upper-register blowing of the evening.
But the biggest challenge may have been the concert’s opening gambit, a rendering of the first half of Black Saint. The piece, a dance score in six movements, is—from its legato-heavy opening, rich with foreboding, through the raging storm of a soundscape Mingus bequeathed to brave bandleaders everywhere—one of the deepest dives into a composer’s psyche in the jazz canon. It is no accident that Mingus enlisted his psychologist to write liner notes for the album.
On the Caramoor stage, the piece proved to be fertile ground for soloists, including Mingus veteran and music director Alex Foster. Wielding a hard-edged alto sax, he cut through the storm, summoning the slightly manic sensibility needed for the task. But he most impressed when the band laid out, save for drummer Donald Edwards. Left to their own devices, the two musicians crafted a soaring joint improvisation—one that was replicated in one form or another throughout the set.
Back in the day, the duos constituted daring interludes of free-jazz. At Caramoor, they seemed hardly less ambitious and proved so flexible that one tune, “Celia,” actually had to be cut from the program to accommodate their length. That the program succeeded so splendidly owed, of course, to Mingus’ prescience but also to the leadership of Foster, who cued the backgrounds and soloists while holding down his section seat and supplying some of the evening’s most trenchant solo commentary.