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Ku-Umba Frank Lacy & the Mingus Big Band: Mingus Sings

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Perhaps more than any other modern jazz composer, Charles Mingus presents a challenge to anyone attempting a tribute album. His wit, musical depth and larger-than-life personality all factored into his writing, making his music difficult to do justice to. Not that it’s impossible. Weird Nightmare, the Hal Willner-directed tribute from 1992, featured a far-flung cast and the use of composer Harry Partch’s oddball instruments, and it mostly succeeded, despite its overambitious nature. Cornetist Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken’s Orange Was the Color, a duets album from 2011, stuck with Mingus’ more melodic works.

Ku-umba Frank Lacy understands the challenges of the territory and raises the stakes even higher by crafting an all-vocal set of Mingus tunes, a genre in which the bassist didn’t primarily operate. Normally a trombonist, Lacy has the ideal voice for this program, combining a gravelly sincerity (and a bit of a lisp) with a rich, deep quality that adds drama to the heavier moments. The backing of the Mingus Big Band, of which Lacy is a bedrock, ensures that the arrangements bear the mark of the composer; the ensemble uses Mingus’ original charts or those by longtime associate Sy Johnson.

The lyrics come from a variety of sources. “Weird Nightmare,” “Eclipse” and “Portrait” should be familiar to Mingus-philes, and Lacy delivers on their poetic intrigue. Sue Mingus penned words for “Noonlight,” a lush piece that was never previously recorded, and she captures her husband’s essence. Less successful are the tracks from Joni Mitchell’s Mingus collaboration, which feel facetious, especially the wordy “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines.” Elvis Costello contributes two sets of lyrics, but lines like “It’s hard to wake up with your silly, cracked crown” (“Invisible Lady”) come off as too highbrow for the setting. Yet when the band kicks into high gear, all is forgiven.

Originally Published