Speaking for myself, I could happily have endured another hour's worth of music.
Jazz titan's opus a highlight of festival
Monday, April 30, 2007
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 have 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
fugue-like "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,
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.