Charles Mingus was a composer whose music spoke volumes without words. It was a rare thing to hear lyrics along with his highly wrought and incredibly emotive compositions, though Mingus had the heart of a poet, as can be seen in his song titles alone.
However, there were projects where Mingus added lyrics to his compositional voice, using either his poetry or that of others. On Ku-umba Frank Lacy and Mingus Big Band’s Mingus Sings, the tremendous repertory ensemble directed by Mingus’s widow, Sue Mingus, has recorded an album of pieces that put vocals front and center, led in part by the triumphant voice of Ku-umba Frank Lacy.
The tireless Sue Mingus introduced what would shortly become the Mingus Dynasty not long after the passing of the legendary bassist/composer in 1979. Eventually, the group evolved into two ensembles, the Dynasty and the Big Band, both of which Sue has led, allowing generations to enjoy and discover the music of her late husband.
In 1989, trombonist/trumpeter Frank Lacy joined the Mingus Big Band while it enjoyed a long residency at the Time Café (later Fez). His credentials were excellent as he had been the musical director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and an important collaborator with many important voices in the New York jazz scene.
While on tour at the Nice Jazz Festival, Lacy was asked to lead a jam session at the hotel where the musicians were staying. In the midst of the session, he unveiled a talent then unknown to his band mates, his fantastic singing ability. With Lacy’s vocal talent a secret no more, the band members informed Sue, and Lacy soon found himself performing vocal pieces with the Big Band.
Of course, Lacy hadn’t been a stranger to singing. He grew up in Texas with a father who played blues and jazz guitar and, along with his love for the instrumental jazz heroes of the day, he loved soul singers like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Donny Hathaway. Lacy’s singing career actually began in the 1970s before he attended Berklee College of Music as a member of an R&B band called Tampa Shades & Colfax.
The Mingus Big Band has long been one of the best repertory bands in jazz. The ensemble’s quality is measured by the tremendous musicians who are involved from week to week. The group featured on Mingus Sings is exceptional and features trumpeters Alex Norris, Lew Soloff and Jack Walrath, trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre, saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright, bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond, pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung and drummer Donald Edwards.
Of course, Mingus was best known as a composer, not a lyricist. He did write a number of pieces utilizing his own fine lyrics; four of them are presented here: “Weird Nightmare,” “Eclipse,” “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” and “Portrait.” The lyrics to the remainder of his pieces come from a handful of extraordinary talents. Four pieces come from Mingus’s collaboration with the great singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, while two have lyrics written by rock and roll legend Elvis Costello. The poetry of Langston Hughes accompanies “Consider Me” from the 1958 recording, The Weary Blues , that Hughes made with Mingus
Two Mingus compositions are recorded here for the first time. “Dizzy Profile” only existed as a lead sheet with lyrics written by drummer and vocalist Doug Hammond and expounds on the accomplishments of the great bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. “Noonlight” was found by musicologist Andrew Homzy while filing papers associated with Mingus’s magnum opus, Epitaph. Homzy presented the music to Sue Mingus who decided that she liked it as a ballad and, subsequently, wrote lyrics and named the piece. Mingus friend and collaborator Sy Johnson arranged both for the Big Band.
The recording begins with Jimmy Kneeper’s arrangement of “Consider Me” with Lacy performing Hughes’s evocative narrative, which is followed by the lushly orchestrated “Dizzy Profile” that ignites into a fiery swing. “Weird Nightmare” shows a fine subtlety in Johnson’s arrangement, while his “Portrait” arrangement is a perfect vehicle for Lacy’s voice and the solos of Walrath and Handy. Mitchell provided the lyrics to the Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” presented here as a bluesy ballad replete with tenor solo from Handy.
Mitchell’s lyrics on “Sweet Sucker Dance” are lovingly adorned by Johnson’s chords and the able saxophone of Wayne Escoffery. Ranging from spare to bombastic, “Invisible Lady” features tricky lyrics from Elvis Costello and arrangement and solo feature from Jack Walrath. Mingus’s tribute to Duke “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” is lovingly performed, as much a tribute to the writer as to his muse. “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines” is a real swinger with a tremendous storybook lyric by Mitchell.
The recently discovered “Noonlight” follows, both stately and melancholy, while Mitchell’s lyrics for “Chair in the Sky” are framed beautifully by lush horns. “Eclipse” is a perfect display of Mingus’s unique ability to switch moods and styles within a piece, from Latin shuffle to ballad and back. The recording ends with “Jelly Roll,” a blustery, celebratory tune with lyrics penned by Costello that is a perfect send off.
The music of Charles Mingus stands as some of the most boisterous, emotional and honest that has even been written. His and other lyricists’s efforts to broaden the emotional impact of the music has never been more effective than on the new recording, Mingus Sings. Vocalist Ku-umba Frank Lacy brings a touching and inspirational approach to the words over the amazing music of the Mingus Big Band.
released June 23, 2015
Frank Lacy - vocals
Jack Walrath - trumpet
Alex Norris - trumpet
Lew Soloff - trumpet
Craig Handy - tenor sax
Wayne Escoffery - tenor sax
Ronnie Cuber - baritone sax
Alex Foster - alto, soprano sax, flute, clarinet
Abraham Burton - tenor sax
Brandon Wright - tenor sax
Conrad Herwig - trombone
Coleman Hughes - trombone
Earl McIntyre - trombone
David Kikoski - piano (Tracks 1-7)
Helen Sung - piano (Tracks 8-13)
Boris Kozlov - bass (Tracks 1-7)
Mike Richmond - bass (Tracks 8-13)
Donald Edwards - drums