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Ethan Philion: Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside)

A review of the bassist's pointedly expressive album

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Ethan Philion: Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside)
The cover of Meditations on Mingus by Ethan Philion

Many view passion and fire as the defining traits in much of Charles Mingus’ work—and there’s no denying their regular presence in the late bassist and composer’s oeuvre. But digging deeper, it becomes abundantly clear that honesty, more than anything else, is what his artistry was all about. Mingus pulled no punches, so it feels oh-so-right that bassist Ethan Philion is honoring this larger-than-life figure with a pointedly expressive album.

Arranging eight Mingus compositions for a dynamic dectet, Philion addresses enduring systemic plagues in unflinching fashion. “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America,” for example, looks at economic inequality through episodic construction. Ratcheting up the intensity in an opening chorale, clearing the air and carrying on with dancing designs, using a shambolic shift to introduce reflective and dramatic space, and then tying all of those threads together in various permutations, Philion accurately reflects Mingus’ complex clarity. Then he continues on with the mission. “Haitian Fight Song,” one of several album selections to tackle racism, shines a light on the junction where collective chemistry and individual expression intersect. “Self Portrait in 3 Colors,” concerned with mental health, explores identity with balladic courage. And “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” eyeing police brutality, swings through several scenes while maintaining its melodic character.

As on Mingus’ own performances, the power in these arrangements comes not just from the writing and its inspirations but also from the musicians breathing life into each scenario. Using a cast that mixes veterans like trumpeter Russ Johnson, tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield, and drummer Dana Hall with up-and-comers such as trombonist Brendan Whalen and pianist Alexis Lombre, Philion shows keen understanding that a key to accessing the profound is based on the right blend of personalities.

Learn more about Meditations on Mingus on Amazon and Apple Music.

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Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.