|The Elvis Costello
Review of Tonight At Noon ... Three Or Four Shades Of Love by
Charles Mingus Orchestra
GRAMMY Magazine - April 24, 2002
JAM: The Mingus Dynasty
Bassist Charles Mingus is remembered through new release marking what would have been his 80th birthday
April is a month of red-letter days for fans of the composer Charles Mingus in celebration of what would have been the 80th anniversary of his birth. Mingus was arguably the greatest bassist/composer in jazz, an iconoclastic genius who took jazz in new directions and influenced musicians ranging from Branford Marsalis to Joni Mitchell.
As of April 22, two units of the Mingus Big Band are touring, one in Europe and another in the States. Earlier this month Tonight At Noon ... Three Or Four Shades Of Love was released featuring the 14-piece big band as well as the debut recordings of the 11-piece Mingus Orchestra, which backs Elvis Costello singing his lyrics to the Mingus tune "Invisible Lady."
"The titles of his compositions are a gift to a songwriter like me," explains Costello. "I wanted to avoid vocalese and to follow the melody line, but I also came up with new melody lines. In that way I feel like a soloist. I'm not improving Mingus' compositions, it's as if I'm doing solos on them."
With titles like "Love Is A Dangerous Necessity," "Sweet Sucker Dance," "Devil Woman," and "Love's Fury" there was no compulsion to get Tonight At Noon to market in time for Valentine's Day. Instead, its combination of delicate harmonies and raging dissonances, seductive melodies and raucous shouts, reflects Mingus's awareness of "love's many splendor contradictions," according to his widow Sue Mingus, whose just-published memoir, Tonight At Noon, chronicles their tumultuous affair and marriage and the circumstance of Mingus's death from ALS.
"I started writing when Charles was dying in Mexico as a way of not only preserving the moment, but I really wanted to show the side of Charles to the world that people did not know, where under the greatest, more horrifying kind of pressure he lived up to every value he ever shouted from the stage with such grace and dignity and bravery ... and humor a sense of the comic in the middle of being paralyzed," she explains. "I put it aside, picked it up, put it aside and years went by. Then people started asking me who are you? Who is this voice? What is your history? How did you meet Charles? That was the hardest part."
As a young man, Mingus played bass in Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, backed singers such as Dinah Washington, was a member of Red Norvo's legendary trio and was fired by Duke Ellington after he pulled a knife on a bandmate and chased him across the stage. For the combos he led, Mingus composed a vast library that drew on the blues, gospel and Latin music. There is the gospel shout of "Better Get It In Your Soul" and the melancholy elegy to Lester Young, "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat," the noirish "Nostalgia In Times Square" and the classical "Myself When I Am Real."
"Mingus went in and out he never pretended to be consistent," explains Sue. There was a time that he didn't like pencil composers. He would call out the lines [of his compositions] vocally. That was one period. Another time he produced scores that just dripped off the bandstand lecterns, that were eight or 10 or 14 pages long.
"Charles was a composer, but he felt that his music should grow and live and breathe and take on colors and personalities of the people who were playing it," she continues. "He really had faith in his fellow musicians to allow them as much freedom as he wrote in to his pieces. Charles wrote some of the most personal, powerful compositions in music. At the same time, [they're] open and allow that [freedom]. That's why the right kind of musician really likes to play this music, because there is so much freedom. But you have to have something to say and the music is not necessarily easy."
Soon after Mingus' death in 1979, Sue put together a seven-piece ensemble to play his music at a tribute at Carnegie Hall, which grew into a working band. In 1989, with the help of Gunther Schuller and musicologist Andrew Homzy, she produced Epitaph with its 500-page score. A decade ago she put together a big band, which plays every Thursday night at the Fez in Greenwich Village. The latest addition is the Orchestra, which includes French horn, bass clarinet, bassoon and saxophonists who double on soprano and flute. "It's more focused on composition, less on soloing, though there is plenty of soloing. It's a different approach to Mingus' music."
Mingus' scores are held by the Library of Congress along with those of assorted European classical composers. The collection is "remarkable" according to Sue. "Stravinsky made his own staffs everything is very organized. Haydn you can hardly read, he wrote on tiny little pieces of paper. Beethoven had huge scores covered with ink droppings and coffee stains; they're almost illogical, very much like Mingus. They're just roaring across the paper it was thrilling to see. Charles' scores are there in good company."
(Dave Helland is a frequent contributor to GRAMMY.com.)