Charles Mingus' monumental 'Epitaph' gets full treatment
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
May 21, 2007
Though Charles Mingus long has been revered as a fearlessly iconoclastic musician, listeners cannot take his full measure until they've heard his "Epitaph."
A monumental orchestral score that embraces jazz, classical, blues and sacred idioms, "Epitaph" received a disastrous New York premiere in 1962, then disappeared until long after the composer's death in 1979, at 52.
Chicago first heard an abbreviated, 80-minute version of the score at the Chicago Jazz Festival, in 1990. But it wasn't until Friday evening that the complete "Epitaph" -- in all its muscular, outsize glory -- was performed here, in Symphony Center. Led by Gunther Schuller, this latest incarnation of "Epitaph" stands as the most complete version yet, because it includes two movements rediscovered after the landmark recording of 1990.
To hear "Epitaph" in its entirety, in a single evening, is to re-evaluate Mingus' stature as composer and innovator.
For though Mingus remains justly admired for tunes such as "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," the scale of his ambition and breadth of his achievement in "Epitaph" place him at the pinnacle of American composition. For starters, several movements in "Epitaph" are so daringly conceived and eloquently articulated that they stand on their own as brilliantly realized works.
The layering of subtle mambo rhythms and intricate orchestral counterpoint in "Inquisition" (a rediscovered movement) points to a composer building on the legacy of classical innovators such as Charles Ives. The interweaving of muted trumpets and woodwind choirs in "Self-Portrait/Chill of Death" attest to Mingus' ultra-refined skills as orchestrator.
At the same time, Mingus in "Epitaph" addresses practically the whole of jazz history, from his bracingly dissonant reinterpretation of Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues" to his exquisitely detailed reimagining Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't."
The gorgeous melody-making of "Peggy's Blue Skylight" and the softly shimmering orchestral colors and steeped-in-blues sensibility of "This Subdues My Passion" (another rediscovered movement) underscore Mingus' mastery of populist jazz forms.
Still, even this newly expanded version of "Epitaph" suffers from an unsatisfying conclusion. Perhaps if Mingus had lived to hear the piece in full, he would have invented a compelling finale.
Even so, Schuller ought to consider rerecording the complete work. Mingus' "Epitaph" deserves no less.
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