Ward’s Touch My Beloved’s Thought Merges Mingus, Dance


Saxophonist Greg Ward (left) and dancers Dalton Rhodes (foreground) and Mecca Madyun Ajanku perform at Constellation in Chicago on June 3.

(Photo: Brian Zimmerman)

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” goes the famous quote. But writing music for choreographed dance? That’s architecture of sight and sound—and it’s the specialty of saxophonist Greg Ward and choreographer Onye Ozuzu, whose ambitious piece Touch My Beloved’s Thought recently ended a run at Constellation, Chicago’s cherished home of all things avant-garde.

Ward, an intrepid alto saxophonist back home in the Windy City after a stint in New York, and Ozuzu, interim dean of the dance department at Chicago’s Columbia College, debuted their joint project at Millennium Park during the 2015 series Made In Chicago: World Class Jazz.

The duo was inspired by Charles Mingus’ 1963 masterwork Black Saint And The Sinner Lady, which was originally conceived as a ballet. “I wrote this music for listening and dancing,” Mingus said in the album’s liner notes, and in doing so forged an everlasting link between this music and kinetic movement.

For their inspired visit to Constellation June 1–3, Ward and Ozuzu made that link even stronger. Their suite—composed for eight dancers (including Ozuzu) and 10 musicians (including Ward)—was an intoxicating brew of styles and forms, in terms of both the music and the choreography.

In his interpretation of Mingus’ piece, Ward retained all of the essential ingredients—the loping swing, the piercing dissonance, the influence of Afro-Latin and work song traditions—while also lending the suite an air of modernity, as evident in the brash avant-garde free-for-alls and throbbing, r&b-flavored choruses.

To this varied soundtrack Ozuzu added choreography that was equally omnivorous, the dancers drawing on a multitude of forms, including ballet, tap, break-dancing and traditional African styles. The troupe’s versatility was a major asset, as their movements served as a visual representation of the mini-narratives being forged through sound.

Carefully maneuvered duets between dancers told of zealous romances and coy love affairs, while group dances communicated themes of anger, frustration and angst. Many words have been written in an attempt to analyze Mingus’ music, and it was refreshing to glean insights about his genius through a fresh, visually dynamic medium.

With its invigorating rhythms and hypnotic melodies, Mingus’ music practically begs to be translated into dance. Few have heeded this call as passionately and articulately as the team of Ward and Ozuzu.

Touch My Beloved’s Thought will be staged at the Jazz Gallery in New York on July 8, after which the ensemble will return to Chicago for a two-night stint at the Green Mill on July 29–30.

In addition, a live recording of the suite is being released by Greenleaf Music, the record label directed by trumpeter Dave Douglas. The album will be available worldwide on July 8.

For more information, or to pre-order a copy of Touch My Beloved’s Thought, click here.

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Samara Joy
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