Reviewed: Charles Mingus Epitaph (DVD)

April 15, 2009

CHARLES MINGUS WAS, OF COURSE, ONE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST COMPOSERS, and Epitaph is an epic work for jazz orchestra that remained incomplete and apparently abandoned at the time of Mingus’ death in 1979.

 A huge collection of manuscripts loosely labeled “Epitaph” were discovered by musicologist Andrew Homzy in 1985, and he painstakingly assembled, restored, and in some cases completed the score, which became the basis for this 90-minute opus (additional material was discovered later, and an official score published in 2007). Under the direction of conductor Gunther Schuller, 30 of the world’s greatest living jazz musicians—including guitarist John Abercrombie—were assembled for a single performance at Lincoln Center in New York on June 3,1989. Although the performance was recorded and filmed for television, and an audio recording was released at the time, the film had not been commercially available until the release of this DVD.

It is interesting to see Mingus’ music presented in such a formal environment, given the more rough and tumble approach he often took for his own performances and recordings—but the stellar lineup of veteran jazzmen bring full force and fury to the music, at times playing with such fire that you half expect the bandstand to be set ablaze. As you’d expect, great solos abound, but impassioned bursts by tenor saxophonist George Adams, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, and bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz are especially incendiary. Abercrombie plays beautifully throughout, skillfully interweaving spidery legato runs and arpeggios into his more conventional comping, and occasionally getting the spotlight for inspired solos such as his bluesy excursion on “Self Portrait: The Chill of Death” and his lyrical lines on “Peggy’s Blue Skylight.”

These compositions are truly epochal, rivaling the orchestral works of Copland and Ives in scope and complexity—but they also swing like crazy, man, making them unique within the American musical canon. The DVD’s production values are also superb, making the experience all the more enjoyable. Don’t miss it. Eagle Rock.

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