Picks and Pans Review: Epitaph

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Charles Mingus

Mingus hated the word jazz because of the back-of-the-bus status it gave him as a serious composer in some circles. Like Duke Ellington, he sought to transcend the song-and-dance origins of jazz and integrate composition and improvisation in extended orchestral forms. Epitaph, a two-hour symphonic work that Mingus said he wrote "for my tombstone," is proof of his genius.

Epitaph is a story in itself. Much of the music was written for a hastily prepared, tumultuous 1962 concert at New York City's Town Hall. When his longtime associate Jimmy Knepper refused to help with some 11th-hour musical arrangements, a furious Mingus punched out several of the trombonist's teeth. The show was full of false starts and ended ignominiously when stagehands shooed everyone out promptly at midnight. Devastated by the experience, Mingus continued to tinker with the symphony intermittently during the next two decades but kept the work secret even from his close friends.

He died in 1979 at 56, from a heart attack brought on by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Five years later musicologist Andrew Homzy found a 500-page score for Epitaph amid Mingus's papers. Composer Gunther Schuller, who collaborated with Mingus on many projects over the years, took charge of translating his friend's idiosyncratic musical notation into a readable form.

This album was recorded at New York City's Alice Tully Hall last June, with Schuller leading a 30-piece band. Divided into 19 movements, Epitaph is a work of monumental grandeur and volcanic passion that is at once forward-looking and mindful of tradition. In "Wolverine Blues" Mingus takes the old Jelly Roll Morton standard and transforms it into a contemporary swing piece. Turning things around I on "Monk, Bunk and Vice Versa (Osmotin')," he takes a fragment from Thelonious Monk's modernist "Well, You Needn't," and through a combination of osmosis and imagination, it becomes a stomping tribute to pre-Dixieland trumpeter Bunk Johnson.

Mingus creates a seamless amalgam of composition and improvisation on "The Chill of Death," a dreamlike abstraction of a melody he wrote at age 17 that features a kaleidoscopic array of brief solos by each of the 30 members of the band.

If Mingus were alive, he would have shouted his instructions to the band and kept the rhythms popping by slapping on his string bass. Schuller takes a more cerebral approach and is most successful at evoking the Ellingtonian lushness of the ballad segments, particularly "Peggy's Blue Skylight." But the most exceptional moment of the performance occurs when a small combo featuring several Mingus alumni takes center stage to jam on "Better Git It in Your Soul." You can almost feel the cantankerous spirit of Mingus take command as trumpeter Jack Walrath, saxophonists John Handy and George Adams, and trombonist Britt Woodman get downright righteous in their recklessness.

Damn you, Mingus, you departed this earth too soon. With you around to give everybody a little hell, they really would have torn the roof off the joint. (Columbia)

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