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Fitting Tributes to an Enigmatic Talent

April 07, 2002|DON HECKMAN

Jazz has had more than its share of charismatic individuals--some more appealing than others. But few were as enigmatic as Charles Mingus, whose enormous talents were combined with a sometimes abrasive unpredictability.

April 22 is the 80th anniversary of the birth of the bassist, composer and bandleader. Born in Nogales, Ariz., in 1922, he spent his formative years in the Southland, became a central figure in the jazz of the '40s, '50s and '60s, and died in Mexico in 1979, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Although his music was not universally accorded a lofty position during his lifetime, the two decades since his passing have provided ample perspective to position Mingus as one of the most important composers in jazz history. Few would now argue that his substantial body of work doesn't belong in the exalted company of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Thelonious Monk.

Mingus' 80th birthday anniversary is being celebrated with the CD "Tonight at Noon ... Three or Four Shades of Love" by the Mingus Big Band (***1/2, Dreyfus Jazz) and "Tonight at Noon: A Love Story" (Pantheon Books), written by his widow, Sue Mingus, and described as "an autobiography of her life with Charles."

The Mingus Big Band is an all-star group of players who have been working under the artistic direction of Sue Mingus since 1991. "Tonight at Noon," the ensemble's seventh recording for Dreyfus Jazz, revolves thematically around what she describes as "the subject of love," a particularly complex sentiment for Mingus and one that surfaced in his music in a remarkable series of far-ranging works.

The album also offers the debut recordings by the Charles Mingus Orchestra, a smaller ensemble that includes several Mingus Big Band members with the addition of French horn and various woodwind instruments. One of the orchestra's pieces, "Eclipse," features a jazz rarity--an improvised bassoon solo, well played by Michael Rabinowitz.

Mingus compositions have always posed thorny problems for reinterpreters. How to deal with the spontaneous interaction between individual players that was so common to the music? How to capture the sudden, surging shifts of rhythm that were generally driven by Mingus' bass in their original manifestations? How to transform smaller group compositions into larger ensemble expressions while remaining true to what Mingus had in mind?

No wonder that the Mingus Big Band--along with Mingus Dynasty (in the '80s) and the fine, Bay Area-based Mingus Amungus--has played such an important role in keeping this valuable material alive in performance mode. In addition to Sue Mingus, major credit also goes to arranger Sy Johnson, with his unerring ability to retain not simply the spirit but the substance too of Mingus' music. His superb arrangement of "Love's Fury," for example--drawn from a notebook sketch--finds a link to Ellington (especially in his use of baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber as a lead voice) that would surely have pleased Mingus. Johnson's setting of the first three movements of the epic "Black Saint & Sinner Lady" similarly underscores Mingus' amazing capacity to create music whose rich, layered density in no way diminishes its emotional impact.

Credit also goes to the Mingus Big Band's brilliant musicians, especially alto saxophonist Alex Foster, trombonists Conrad Herwig and Ku-umba Frank Lacy, trumpeters Kenny Rampton and Alex Sipiagin, and Cuber, all of whom played important roles in bringing a gripping program to life. I can't think of a better way to celebrate the Mingus anniversary.

Sue Mingus' "Tonight at Noon" has its celebratory aspects, as well. But it is valuable primarily for its insights into the final chapters of Mingus' life. When she first met him in 1964, her knowledge of jazz was admittedly nil. At the time, Mingus was leading some of his finest ensembles. Although his extraordinary recordings for Columbia, RCA, Atlantic and Candid were already completed, some fine work--"Reincarnation of a Lovebird," "Changes One" and "Changes Two," "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion"--was still to be done.

An experienced, insightful writer, Sue Mingus avoids the trap of sentimentality, illuminating her husband as an artist and a man, casting light on at least some aspects of his always complex, often difficult persona.

Four other books offer different but equally valuable perspectives (a book by writer Nat Hentoff--a friend as well as a business associate of the artist--is in the works): "Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus"(Vintage Books), an autobiography of sorts written in 1971, can best be described as a written improvisation on his life. Comparable to his music in its juxtaposition of exaggeration and reality, its sudden twists and turns, it is less a distortion of facts than it is a view of life seen through a one-of-a-kind filter.

"Mingus: A Critical Biography" (Da Capo Press), by British musician-journalist Brian Priestley, examines many of the major works in detail without hesitating to evaluate them from a technical viewpoint. "Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus" (Oxford University Press), by Gene Santoro, is a detailed biography that is generally successful at making some linear sense out of the tangled web of Mingus' life.

In "Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs" (Limelight Editions), Janet Coleman and Al Young offer an engrossing, colorful view of an enormously complex man, of his passions and eccentricities, of the manner in which his music of the '50s was deeply affected by the turbulent social climate of the late Eisenhower years and the dawning struggles of the '60s.


Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times.

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