Review: Charles Mingus' "Epitaph"
Allen Theatre, Playhouse Square
Friday, April 27
Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
A slip of the tongue just about said it all.
"I think we'll send you all home happily," Gunther Schuller told the audience Friday night at Playhouse Square's Allen Theatre.
"Or happy," the conductor hastened to add, laughing along with the rest of us.
The occasion was a marathon performance of "Epitaph" by jazz titan Charles Mingus, who died in 1979. Discovered posthumously, his wildly ambitious magnum opus in 19 movements is a rare treat in concert, albeit not for the faint of heart.
Cleveland was one of only four tour stops for Schuller and the 31-piece "Epitaph" Orchestra, overseen by Mingus' widow, Sue. The gig here was a highlight of the 28th annual Tri-C JazzFest, whose organizers deserve kudos for scoring a major coup.
Two hours and 15 minutes of music encompassed not only jazz, but blues, classical, gospel and other styles, too. Allowing only a brief intermission to catch your breath, the experience was enervating at times, yet ultimately exhilarating.
They should've hawked "I SURVIVED 'EPITAPH' " T-shirts at the souvenir booth.
"Better Get It in Your Soul" provided an uplifting "aperitif" (as Schuller put it) before the main course. Fittingly, one of the first sounds we heard was the mighty rumble of Mingus' own upright bass, pressed back into service with passion by Boris Kozlov.
"Epitaph" commenced with "Main Score Part 1," which evoked a film-noir soundtrack. Subsequent movements were all over the map, from the swinging "The Soul" to the Latin-flavored "Inquisition" to the fuguelike "O.P. (Oscar Pettiford)."
Schuller, who knew Mingus personally, made an amiable tour guide throughout the tour de force, enlightening us with insightful remarks about the composition and the composer. By way of introducing "Self Portrait/Chill of Death," Schuller said Mingus lived for a time with a death wish. The piece in question began sunnily enough, although the shrill woodwinds soon felt as if they were closing in on you.
The second half of the concert brought more dramatic contrasts, juxtaposing the pretty, Duke Ellington-style ballad "This Subdues My Passion" with the avant-garde, Stravinskian haze of "The Children's Hour of Dream."
Hotshot trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy capably handled vocals during "Freedom," a gospel-flavored showstopper. Douglas Yates on contrabass clarinet and vibraphonist Christos Rafalides made their presence felt, too.
The true star was MIA, however. Too bad Mingus wasn't around to bask in the hard-earned standing ovation for "Epitaph," a monumental achievement unparalleled in the annals of jazz.
I, for one, went home happy. And happily. But mostly happy.
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Review Mingus Epitaph