A jazz giant speaks to our times on Ethan Philion’s “Meditations on Mingus”

Album review: Ethan Philion Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside)

Ethan Philion will present the full-ensemble “Meditations on Mingus” at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Sept. 2, and at the North Street Cabaret in Madison on Sept. 10, and a quartet version at Bar Centro in Milwaukee on Sept. 11.

Imagine a sculptor laboring over the Mount Rushmore of modern jazz giants and, somehow, forgetting about Charles Mingus. Through some boisterous psychic phenomenon, Mingus would barge into the artist’s consciousness and muscle his way into the layout of great granite figures. Mingus had a personality as large as his talents, and his social consciousness. These qualities all arise in a simmering stew called Meditations on Mingus by Chicago bassist-arranger and bandleader Ethan Philion.

Key to this project’s accomplishment is Philion understanding how pointedly Mingus’s 1960s music addresses America’s open societal wounds and flaws of today. This 10-piece band (including Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson) bristles, wails, and swings like a 10-headed-demon inspired by the jazz gods. Mingus emerged from jazz god Ellington, retaining The Duke’s gifts for lyricism and fine detail. Yet Mingus upped the quotient of fiery, chest-pounding large-ensemble jazz.

Ethan Philion’s Mingus Big Band live at the Green Mill in Chicago. Courtesy ethanpilion.com

For example, on the opening “Once Upon a Time in a Holding Corporation called Old America,” the music ripples and reaches for the sky while keeping its collective feet deep in the funky earth. It evokes the profound income inequality that is worse today than ever. “Haitian Fight Song” boils and stomps, exemplifying how Mingus horn ensembles could mutate into one strangely beautiful creature of defiance.

“Pithecanthropus Erectus” is a striking musical portrait of homo sapiens rising from ape to human; it’s superbly orchestrated myriad voices, from cacophony to harmonized reason (and back), comments on the struggles of “man” to truly achieve humanity. Philion’s liner notes include an ominous Mingus quote to help signify the tune: “His own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave…deny him not only the right of ever being a man, but finally destroy him completely.”

Bassist-arranger-bandleader Ethan Philion with trumpeter Victor Garcia. Courtesy Ethan Philion

Blues-infused, mournful and dramatic, “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters” is a vivid small-picture evocation of a man’s incarceration, strengthened and sustained by dreams of freedom.

By contrast, “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” is an ironically titled big picture on prison’s institutional racism. In 1971, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller notoriously rejected a requested visit to Attica Prison to address the black inmates’ grievances, thus spurring a prison uprising, which 1,000 white state troopers smashed by killing 33 inmates and 10 hostages. President Richard Nixon spun the tragedy as a triumph of governmental justice. Medical examiners confirmed that all but the deaths of one officer and three inmates were caused by law enforcement gunfire.[1][10] The New York Times writer Fred Ferretti said the rebellion concluded in “mass deaths that four days of taut negotiations had sought to avert”. The Attica Uprising has been described as a historical event in the prisoners’ rights movement.

Throughout Meditations, Philion conveys Mingus’s brilliance with tight-yet-liberated ensembles, bounding with call-and-response passages, and an inner fire that spurs soloists to heights of fire and ardor (especially alto sax player Rajiv Halim, on the bracing “Prayer for Passive Resistance”).

In referring back to the music as I wrote this, I’m continually captivated by the richness of the compositions, arrangements and the colorful soloists. Jazz doesn’t get any better.

Remember Rockefeller, sure, but remember Mingus indeed – hearing this album he’s as alive as a man breathing right down your neck.

Charles Mingus. Courtesy New England Conservatory of Music

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This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: Mingus music review

For information on, and to purchase, this album, visit: https://ethanphilion.com/home

 

 

 

 

 

Milwaukee’s premiere trumpeter-composer Russ Johnson to play Chicago Jazz Festival September 2

  • Trumpeter-bandleader Russ Johnson. Courtesy Chicago Reader
  • Let’s give it up for Milwaukee trumpeter (Shorewood resident) Russ Johnson, who may be the finest jazz trumpeter living in the upper Midwest. He will be leading a quartet at Chicago Jazz Festival on at 1:50 p.m., Saturday, September 2 at the Von Freeman Pavilion, named for legendary Chicago saxophonist.
  • You can catch Russ in town regularly, as he plays most Tuesday evenings in the Dave Bayles Trio at the uptown or Tavern, at the corner of Humboldt and center Street, in Riverwest.
  • The Russ Johnson Quartet will do a warm-up for the Chicago fest at The Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27 in Bay View. The quartet includes Johnson, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Ethan Philion and drummer Tim Daisy.
  • Mark Feldman. Courtesy Soapbox Gallery
  • Feldman is a vastly experienced musician as a symphony orchestra player and has played with country stars, and a wide array of jazz and avant-garde musicians. including recording with Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, and Chris Potter.
  • Though I haven’t heard Philion, he’s notable as the leader of a new Sunnyside recording Meditations on Mingus, leading a ten-piece band in a sequence of substantial Charles Mingus compositions. Johnson is a trumpeter on that recording,
  • Johnson says his festival quartet is also recording this fall, and that a prominent European label has already expressed interest.
  • Don’t miss the quartet in Milwaukee, if you can’t make it for the big Chicago event.
  • The Chicago Jazz Festival, sponsored by the city and others, is still a free event, though you need tickets to some events.
  • At bottom is one more recommendation for the fest, and a link to the fest schedule, ticketing and website.
  • (FWIW, here’s my review of Johnson’s 2014 album Meeting Point) :

    Trumpeter Russ Johnson opens new vistas in jazz conversation

  • September 2 Chicago Jazz Festival 
  • Von Freeman Pavilion (North Promenade)
  • 11:30am-12:25pm – Regina Harris Baiocchi (Jazz Institute of Chicago’s New Works, Fresh Voices)
  • 12:40-1:35pm – Arman Sangalang Quartet
  • 1:50-2:45pm – Russ Johnson Quartet
  • 3:00-4:00pm  – Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days

Here’s a YouTube of a set of the quartet, recorded live in March:

  • Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson at the Uptowner Tavern with the Dave Bayles Trio (above and below) Photos by Kevin Lynch
  • Another recommendation for the Chicago Jazz Festival is the alto saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenon who’s riding his new superb recording Musica De Las Americas.
  • He performs at 8 p.m. in Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St., on Sunday, September 3.
  • Miguel Zenon. Courtesy Wikipedia
  • The album further deepens his creative resourcing of his Puerto Rican music roots, this time with all originals rather than doing historic reclamation of underexposed Puerto Rican composers as he’s done several times in recent years.
  • His work amounts to a profound excavation and bridging of the Latin connection in music of the Americas.
  • Plus, Zenon has as dynamically charged and cohesive a quartet, including Luis Perdomo one of my favorite pianists, as you’ll hear in jazz. Musica De Las Americas is augmented by the percussion and vocal quartet Los Pleneros De La Cresta.
  • Zenon’s new music is pensive, probing, lyrical and exhilarating, by turns. It raises and musically waves a rippling flag of identity while conveying that identity’s universality as a musical language.
  • Here’s a link to the festival info: Chicago Jazz Festival 2022

 

Jazz has led the way in integration as a social and cultural model at least since 1938

George Shearing, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich, at the Madison Square Garden Jazz Festival in New York, in 1959. Photo: Herb Snitzer /MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVE/GETTY

Sure, pianist George Shearing (pictured, above left) was literally blind, to color and everything else (and once made an album with all three Black Montgomery brothers –Wes, Buddy and Monk). Nevertheless, this photo – which prompted this brief essay – signifies, for me, the pan-racial solidarity of jazz as a social model, including brash, super-egotistical Buddy Rich — in 1959. 1

I’m no Rich expert but, a cursory examination of his noteworthy 1967 album Speak No Evil, reveals how integrated his sensibilities and practices were by then. The title tune is by the great African-American saxophonist composer Wayne Shorter. The album also includes compositions by black artists Earth, Wind and Fire; Natalie Cole; The Pointer Sisters; and The Isley Brothers. His band at the time featured these black musicians: arranger Richard Evans, piano soloist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Cranshaw, tuba player Howard Johnson, and vocalist Retta Hughes. Speak no evil, indeed.

There were certainly plenty more of integrated jazz bands by 1967, but let’s especially note examples of pioneering pre-’60s white bandleaders whom one might assume could travel and work easier in racially charged regions of America without the “white man’s burden” which is actually “the black man’s burden,” (as author/editor Greg Tate has eloquently documented 2.) of conforming to societal restrictions on integration, and thus helped advance the burgeoning civil rights movement.

The integration saga begins with Benny Goodman who hired star soloists from the Ellington and Basie Orchestras for 1938 at his epic Carnegie Hall concert, and his contemporary quartet with pianist Teddy Wilson and vibist Lionel Hampton. Earlier in the ’30s, he’d hired Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, and arranger Fletcher Henderson. In the ’40, Goodman hired guitarist Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Wardell Gray.

Among notable 1950s Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz musicians and bands and musicians were Chano Pozo, Machito, Chico O’Farrell, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Prez Prado, Astor Piazolla, Xavier Cugat, singer Harry Belafonte and, yes, that the eclectic Brit George Shearing.

Then in the ’50s, among the most noatable integration developments came from Milwaukee-native and big band leader Woody Herman. He hired a variety of African American musicians in the 1950s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeters Ernie Royal, Reunald Jones, Nat Adderley, and Howard McGee, and bassists Keter Betts and Major Holley bass. Charlie Parker was guest soloist with the band in early ’50’s.

Herman also hired (white) trumpeter-singer Billie Rogers, one of the first female instrumentalists in a male-dominated band who wasn’t a singe or pianist. *

Speaking of women, in the 1940s, we can’t forget the integrated all-woman big band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

The saxophone section of the 1940s tri-racial orchestra The International Sweethearts of Rhythm Courtesy Rosalind Cron 

Besides Shearing, Herman and Buddy Rich, integrated bands with white leaders included The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lennie Tristano, Art Pepper, The Gerry Mulligan Quartet, Stan Getz, the black and white co-leadership and integrated personnel of the standard-setting Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and The J.J. Johnson-Kai Winding Quartet.

Among integrated black leaders of the late 1950s: Miles Davis (famously on Birth of the Cool, and Kind of Blue), Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, 3 John Coltrane, George Russell, Sarah Vaughan and Bud Powell, who recorded with Buddy Rich back in 1951.

Also, pioneering Black pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams worked with white trombonist Jack Teagarden, and had arranger Milt Orent assist in arrangements for her ambitious 1940s Zodiac Suite.

I know I am forgetting other “integral” leaders from both races.

l’ll just touch lightly on matters of early modern jazz “influence.” Bebop rose as a virtuosic, self-consciously Black-innovated style (like most all major jazz idioms) to deter whites from “stealing” and profiting by mimicking and marketing their style — as happened profligately with swing. Still, bop had a few notable Bud Powell-influenced white pianists, such as Dodo Mamarosa, Joe Albany, and Al Haig. Among 1950s white pianists influenced by Thelonious Monk (and perhaps Herbie Nichols) was the tragically-short-lived Richard Twardzik. 4.  

Perhaps an efficient way to enhance and conclude this brief historical integration story is to note the 1950s phenomenon of “cool jazz,” and here I’m plucking straight from Wikipedia, to dispel the notion this popular genre was the exclusive realm of white West Coast musicians: “Some observers looked down upon West Coast jazz because many of its musicians were white, and because some listeners, critics, and historians perceived that the music was too cerebral, effete, or effeminate, or that it lacked swing.[12][13][14] However, African American musicians played in the style, including Curtis CounceJohn LewisChico HamiltonHarry “Sweets” EdisonBuddy ColletteRed CallenderHarold LandEugene Wright and Hampton Hawes.”

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* Thanks to Curt Hanrahan, music director of The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, for information on Woody Herman.

  1. Thanks to my good friend, Stephen Braunginn, formerly jazz program host of WORT-FM radio in Madison, and of the Jazz Enthusiasts Facebook group, for posting this photo (at top).
  2. Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture, edited by by Greg Tate, Broadway Books 2003. This book addresses what is now known in P.C. terms as cultural appropriation. But it seems to me that white jazz artists who cover and pay royalties to black composers, and who fairly hire black musicians are, as Spike Lee would put it, “doing the right thing.”
  3. Though most famous for his piano-less “free jazz” Ornette Coleman used white pianists on his important earliest recordings, the Live at the Hillcrest date with Paul Bley (a true quiet giant) and Walter Norris on Coleman’s Contemporary label recordings, recently re-released as a 2-CD box set.
  4. Twardzik’s composition “Yellow Tango,” is a Latin-flavored small masterpiece of offbeat jazz, well represented on The Chet Baker Quartet featuring Dick Twardzik Live in Koln.

Mary LaRose the singer resurrects Dolphy; LaRose the artist captures many jazz musicians in pastel

Reviews: Mary LaRose – Out Here (Little i Music), and Out There: Visions of a Sound, jazz portraiture art book by LaRose

Jazz singer/visual artist Mary LaRose embarked on one of the most daring and enlightening projects I’ve heard in a long time. Out Here lovingly reimagines compositions by, an associated with, Eric Dolphy, the supremely gifted multi-instrumentalist who died tragically at 36, in a Berlin hospital, of a diabetic coma after physicians presumed him merely a drugged-out jazzer. 1

LaRose and an excellent quintet resurrect Dolphy. 2 Jeff Lederer’s clarinets superbly evoke Dolphy’s exclamatory, sinuous playing style. Drummer Matt Wilson goes “out there” like a dancing tightrope walker. LaRose ingeniously sets Dolphy’s music to vocalese and scatting. She reveals the meaning of tune “245” — the Carlton Street address in Brooklyn, where many jazz musicians resided. She’s a “fly on the wall” in this hippest of abodes.

She shows that Dolphy’s “Out There” — “You’ve got to push yourself, get out there.” — is cutting-edge but not free jazz, sustained like a gyrating thread of many colors. Her singing lends warm humanity to Dolphy’s wide intervals, his way of releasing, and containing, musical expression. “Music Matador” revels in Dolphy’s underexposed roots in lilting Panamanian rhythms.

“Serene,” is a Zen-like meditation on the sublime relationship between syncopation and relaxation. “Love Me” (a Victor Young standard Dolphy recorded in duet with Madison-based bassist Richard Davis), is here a duet between LaRose and bass clarinetist Lederer, who are married, and they radiate nearly erotic sensual interplay.

Finally, a Mal Waldron tune that Dolphy debuted, “Warm Canto” glows, accompanying LaRose’s poetic ode to death, as strangely moving as anything modern jazz song has produced: “When I am dead, make art of my bones, bleach and dry them in the sun/ pure white, startling as stars…”

LaRose recites these lyrics, in the first person, in a tender yet declamatory tone. She seems to strive to both honor and inhabit Dolphy’s long-passed but ever-present spirit. A vividly-imagined, wholly-personalized evocation of the man and the artist.

Give thanks that time has allowed her, and the sun Out Here, to rise and shine on his legacy, to lengthen it to more proper fulfillment.

This album review Was lowercaseriginally Published in the Shepherd Express in slightly shorter form:https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/out-here-by-mary-larose-little-i-music/

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Jazz singer-songwriter-artist Mary LaRose in her studio, where she produced the art for her new book “Out There.” Courtesy Jazz Times

During LaRose’s period of this creativity, largely the pandemic, she produced far more than just a great album of music. She is also an accomplished visual artist, who studied with the famous realist painter Philip Pearlstein. She has also published, in conjunction with the album Out Here, a book of her portraits of jazz saxophonist’s, titled Out There: Visions of a Sound, (the main title is also the title of a well-known Eric Dolphy album).

The book is a limited edition of 100 copies, and at least as comparable an accomplishment as the album, in its own way. It’s one of the finest collections of jazz portraiture artwork I’ve seen, given that jazz portraits are far better-known in photography. 3 How many people can say they transmuted the year of the plague into so much quality productivity? 

LaRose consciously chose to set her work apart from jazz photography by not basing her portraits on photographs, but rather on videos of the musicians. That way, she could strive to capture more of the dynamic essence of the musician, without venturing far beyond her realistic discipline. Rather than hard-edged realism, she uses pastel crayons on black paper to highly evocative effect, on all of the portraits except for the color cover portrait of Dolphy, which is oil on canvas, and also the cover of the album.

That painting is much more of a painterly exercise, with dancing red tones around Dolphy and his flute, which seems to evoke, and perhaps defy, Dolphy’s famous quote, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone in the air; you can never recapture it.”

Otherwise, she contains her interpretive and expressive skills in the depiction of the musician himself. In the No. 9 portrait of Yusuf Lateef, the musician who first inspired her to do this series, his eyes glint amid his most prominent features, all hovering in darkness, as striking as the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Yusef Lateef, by Mary LaRose, pastel on textured art paper, 2021

Pastel crayon is a still-underappreciated medium (which I myself have used extensively). It provides a palpable presence that is perfectly enhanced by the textured black art paper. This embraces the blackness of most of these musicians, but these could be called “noir jazz” portraits, given that noir aesthetics in film, typically accompanied by jazz scores, emerged in the 1940s and ’50s, when most of these musicians got their starts. Time after time, LaRose reveals how shadows haunt and mystify, to varying degrees, each musician, even as her colors render the face vibrant. Most features a distinctly sculpted, though alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who played for years with the great pianist Cecil Taylor, is almost abstracted into a dream of a jazz face on Mount Rushmore.

Overall though, there is little mistaking most every musician. So, a fun game to play — for those knowledgeable of jazz reed players from the ’60s and beyond — is to see how many you can identify, without seeing the name on the facing page.

However, the greater value of the book is the expressive artistry LaRose brings to her rough-hewn realism. She superbly she captures the facial traits along with the physical effort and technique necessary to play a reed instrument. In other words – – as her reed-playing husband and musical collaborator Jeff Lederer notes in the book’s introduction – she focuses on the embouchure of each musician, a fair assessment.

Still, it is her hand and eye, guiding the meandering line of pastel crayon on black paper that lends the vitality to these interpretive portraits. That attuned line and mottled texture almost work like a lasso, whirling and catching each subject or, as Miles Davis once put it, “chasing down the voodoo.” This cumulative effect renders them as “black saints,” the title character-type whom Charles Mingus addressed in his masterful album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. That titular character was reportedly inspired by Dolphy.

Among her most haunting portraits are two successive ones of the late Albert Ayler, who was found dead in New York’s East River in 1971, a mysterious “drowning” to this day. Ayler possessed a large-eyed countenance of radiant spiritual innocence. In the first portrait, Ayler is not playing. Rather he gazes directly into the viewer’s eyes, possessing here a curious serenity. In the second rendering (below), he’s playing his tenor sax but the eyes still remain riveted on the viewer. Does he see his darkly looming destiny? Or is it a spirit, reflected in you, the recipient of his fire music?

Albert Ayler, by Mary LaRose. Pastel on textured our paper 2021

There are many monochromatic portraits executed in white pastel, and others amount to lively masks of many colors. One of the most striking of those is of Guiseppe Logan who, in a life-worn face of crevasses and cavities, seems to feel “the black man’s burden” Here for every day that his life of abject obscurity subject him to.

Guiseppe Logan, By Mary LaRose, Pastel on textured our paper, 2021

There are six more portraits of Eric Dolphy’s handsome and sensitive face, aside from the cover painting, signifying the importance he holds in LaRose’s eyes. Here we see the range of his virtuosity on flute, alto sax, and bass clarinet. That brings a measure of justice to this musician, especially considering how his career was cut short – by what may have been racist stereotyping judgment by attending doctors when he died, just as this refined man was reaching full maturity as an artist. Not all these men are dead. Yet, such superb portrayals of such blacks saints who were, to varying degrees, “Invisible Men” in their lifetimes, amount to a tender, precious honor to them. With the music, it’s almost as if we can freeze-frame them in our mind’s eye – a moving image of musical life in the very breath of creative ferment.

The book also includes an artist’s statement, an introduction by Lederer, and an index of the video sources for each of the portraits.

Along with the innovative album Out Here, the book Out There is a treasure trove I will revisit often, and learn from, as a visual artist working in the same medium. Yet Out There has traveled far further than any mere academic exercise.

Both the album Out Here and the portrait book Out There are available at the record label’s Bandcamp page, here: https://littleimusic.bandcamp.com/merch

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1 Apparently unbeknownst to doctors, Dolphy was a teetotaler who didn’t smoke cigarettes or take drugs.[11]

Ted Curson, a trumpeter who worked with Dolphy in Mingus’s band, remembered: “That really broke me up. When Eric got sick on that date [in Berlin], and him being black and a jazz musician, they thought he was a junkie. Eric didn’t use any drugs. He was a diabetic—all they had to do was take a blood test and they would have found that out. So he died for nothing. They gave him some detox stuff and he died, and nobody ever went into that club in Berlin again. That was the end of that club”.[62] Shortly after Dolphy’s death, Curson recorded and released Tears for Dolphy, featuring a title track that served as an elegy for his friend.

2. LaRose previously did an excellent album titled Reincarnation, taking the same approach to compositions of Charles Mingus, the great bassist, composer and bandleader, who was Dolphy’s longest employer before he went solo.

3. The only recent jazz portrait artist I can think of with comparable quality is Madison-based Martel Chapman, who works in a very different, cubistic style of portraiture.