Old grudge is laid to rest amid Mingus masterpiece

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Charlie Mingus, the dark angel of the bass fiddle, got me sore when he punched Jimmy Knepper, the virtuoso trombone player, in the mouth and ruined his embouchure, or chops, as the brassmen say.

So being a trumpet player, I listened to Mingus with a jaundiced ear ever after, holding the grudge far longer than Knepper, who seems to have forgiven him without much delay.

That was back in the 1960s, and I kept my sneer going all through "The Fables of Faubus," "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and "Haitian Fight Song" — output that struck me as tailored for sale to a certain defiant '60s demo.

Now comes the long-lost and heavily decorated Gunther Schuller, the Third Stream music man who likes to blend the classics with jazz. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Genius Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, the Darius Milhaud Award, the Rogers and Hammerstein Award and Columbia University's William Schuman Award for lifetime achievement in American music composition, Schuller is conducting a four-stop domestic tour of the staggering two-hour Mingus composition for double jazz orchestra, "Epitaph."

I say long-lost because Schuller, 81, doesn't break out his French horn anymore, like he used to in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera or on record dates like the landmark "Birth of the Cool" session.

This does not mean he hasn't been busy.

"In the mid-'90s we did a huge European tour of this piece," Schuller said. He conducted it in "virtually every capital of every European country. In Spain alone, we played in five different cities. We got to know it pretty well."

Not only that, but Schuller has been living with this colossus for better than 20 years, putting its 4,000 measures into playable form after its loose pages were discovered in the mid-'80s in a trunk under a birdcage in Mingus' old apartment in Manhattan. Schuller led its posthumous premiere in 1989 at Lincoln Center, a concert characterized by the New York Times as "the jazz event of the decade."

And when he led a bright and brawny 31-piece band through the piece the other night at Walt Disney Hall, I decided that I'd been giving Mingus a bum rap.

That came to me early in the concert, along about the 700th measure, when Kenny Drew Jr. improvised a piano solo that pretty much covered all the bases that the Mingus pen was to touch in this unforgettable evening. It left several bandmates with open mouths and shining eyes and provoked a round of surprised applause.

Blues and roots rested in the left hand as a cataract of harmonic baubles was provided by the right, implying sprung rhythms and distant tonalities and lord knows what-all. Plus, Drew kept you dimly aware that this was being done as a growth from "I Can't Get Started," rechristened "Started Melody" by the composer.

As the 21 sections of the work went by, the six-man trumpet section would get up from time to time and break for the basket, whipping the sound along with stroboscopic bursts in nonchalant mastery of the Mingus intricacies on the score sheets.

The trombones were equally professional, plus harboring Ku-umba Frank Lacy, who did some gutbucket growl and narrated an elevating Mingus piece called "Freedom," the only vocal.

Everywhere you looked in this band, there was a genius — from the great Boris Kozlov standing next to the great Christian McBride in place of the Mingus bass fiddle to Kenny Rampton, Jack Walrath and Ryan Kisor in the trumpet section, Ronnie Cuber and Craig Handy among the saxophones handling the murky middle parts. Howard Johnson was at the tuba, and right next to him was Douglas Yates with his 6-foot-high contrabass clarinet.

On the podium with his white hair being blown back like that guy in the loudspeaker ad was Schuller, who was not exactly fearless despite all his medals.

"Listen, you can play it a thousand times — it's always difficult and challenging," Schuller said. "This piece is so difficult in both technical and conceptual ways that you have to concentrate every split second. There's no time when you can sorta sit back and wait for something to happen. This is like doing a Wagner opera 51/2 hours long. I can speak to that because I played in the Metropolitan Opera for 18 years."

Well, says I, if it's so terrifically great, Mr. Schuller, in terms of musical history, where did jazz go after hearing this pioneering work? Did anybody take Mingus up?

"I'm rather sad," Schuller said, "that while Mingus is recognized as an incredible bass player, a very innovative bass player, a lot of people know that and they know him as a bandleader and a slightly volatile personality who could be as gentle as a baby and as wild as an erupting volcano.

"But what people don't seem to know or recognize is that he is one of the two or three absolutely greatest jazz composers — with the emphasis on composing," he said.

Schuller elaborated on that theme and then thought a minute.

"As to where this will go, whether this is having any influence right now, I rather doubt it at the moment. It's not just this piece, if you want to get into it — I mean a lot of jazz nowadays has sort of gone backwards; it's totally modal improvisation."

Just when I was getting to like it.
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