Even the greenest of instrumental amateurs knows that which separates a good jazz musician from the rest of the pack is an intimate understanding of nuance. For Miles Davis, it was a matter of timing, knowing that a single note played at the perfect moment could speak volumes more than the most dazzling flash of technical facility. With Charlie Parker, it was about phrasing, weaving wide swaths of rhythm with the tenacity of a possessed tap dancer, effortlessly piling layer upon layer like crisp sheets of typing paper falling from the sky. Among Thelonious Monk’s many gifts was an intimate knowledge of the wondrous subtleties of harmony, the possibilities of chord voicings that extend to seemingly infinite ends as well as the beautiful simplicity of unison. But Charles Mingus was somewhat of an inexplicable anomaly in the pantheon of jazz giants: he understood and utilized all of these clever proficiencies as both a performer and a composer.
Now, nearly 23 years after his death, the recognition of the compositional genius of Charles Mingus more than merely stands up against the scrutiny of time. It has blossomed, while the efforts of those who marginalize his importance in the development of the art are readily thwarted in the face of not only his sizable body of work and recordings but also by the efforts of thriving ensembles like the Mingus Big Band. In a day and age where regularly gigging “tribute” ensembles are treated with the regard of an arthritic dinosaur, the sustained success of the MBB is a remarkable curiosity not unlike the composer of the music it honors.
Tonight at Noon . . . Three or Four Shades of Love, the band’s seventh release on the Dreyfus label, explores an unusual side of Mingus’ compositional persona by examining the theme of love in his music, plumbing the sensual depths of some of his best known works and a handful of his more obscure pieces. And of course, leave it to Mingus to show that love songs don’t have to be all about tender loping ballads. Instead, Mingus tried to capture not only the simple beauty of love, but also its complexities, with the ability to move from maddening frustration to blissful peace in a matter of bars.
The disc’s concisely mapped opening track, “Love is a Dangerous Necessity”, tackles this notion head on. Colored by stabbing brass lines, this short sketch arranged by long time Mingus associate Sy Johnson (and whose work can be heard on seven of the disc’s ten tracks) explores the tension of longing and the pain of unfulfilled want. Similarly, the chaotic opening to “Love’s Fury” touches the same nerve before surrendering to the noir-like balladic lyricism of baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. Yet the anxiety of the chart’s opening never quite dissipates and remains a palpable presence throughout and beautifully interpreted by the band.
Also leave it to Mingus to find the humor in any theme or situation as well as represented by “Passions of a Woman Loved”. Shifting manically between duple and triple meters at a moment’s notice while also exploring a wide array of harmonic textures, Sy Johnson’s arrangement captures the frustratingly fickle nature of amorous affections. Meanwhile, trombonist Conrad Herwig, saxophonist Vincent Herring, and pianist David Kikoski attack the changes with abandon, each torturously twisting themselves around the delicate joy and occasional despair of each moment.
Guest vocal appearances by pop crossover crooner Elvis Costello and longtime Mingus associate Frank Lacy offer a break from the straight instrumental bent of the disc. Penning a set of intriguing lyrics to “Invisible Lady”, Costello valiantly attempts to command the moment but falls short from proving that he is completely comfortable in his environment. While his effort is sincere, his voice never quite sells. Conversely, Lacy’s rough-hewn blues belt is a perfect fit for “Devil Woman”. Pained and passionate, Lucy drives the band with a full head of steam instead of being merely content with participating in the effort. His effusive personality shines with every crazed wail and wounded gesticulation. Also augmenting the Mingus Big Band’s efforts on four of the tracks is the Charles Mingus Orchestra, a group that includes French horn, bassoon, flute, bass clarinet, and guitar and imbues “Noon Night”, “Eclipse”, “Invisible Lady”, and the disc’s title track with fresh hues of aural color.
Sue Mingus, the widow of the late composer, produced this collection of tracks and proves to be not only a stalwart protectress of her husband’s legacy, but she also displays a level of intimacy with his work that goes beyond being a mere custodian and extends into the realm of critical authority. Tonight at Noon resounds with her dedication as well as the sublime efforts of an incredible group of musicians that have pledged themselves to continue bringing the genius of Charles Mingus and his work to a world that, sadly enough, may very well be better prepared to understand and appreciate it now than when he was alive.