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Stephanie Nilles: I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – the White Flag (Sunnyside)

A review of the pianist's album of compositions from Mingus and others

Stephanie Nilles: I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – the White Flag
Cover of I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – the White Flag by Stephanie Nilles

In the wake of the tumult that was 2020, this album’s title could likely raise a suspicious eyebrow from anyone who hasn’t seen the film Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968. The great bassist and composer spoke those same words in front of director Thomas Reichmann’s camera when asked whether he would salute the American flag. But there was more; his whole quote, which appears on the back of pianist Stephanie Nilles’ album of Mingus compositions (mostly), is both sarcastic and insightful, demanding that our country’s leaders “see that someday they will live up to their own promises to the victims that they call citizens.” Along with Nilles’ personal notes, the quote proves that Mingus is as timely and potent as ever, even when interpreted on solo piano.

Nilles approaches this music skillfully, knowing how much personal delivery can shape it. Her gravelly voice opens the album, singing the first lines of “Fables of Faubus” along with the piano. She’s savvy and forgoes the rest of the scathing lyrics, preferring to build a lengthy improvisation with snatches of spirituals and classical themes. By contrast, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is stark, with a simple left-hand figure that lets the dark blue melody sink in deeper. The rubato “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” gets marred by too many twinkly arpeggios and the inexplicable album closer, John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” is definitely relevant but a little too heavy of message.

In between, however, Nilles builds the deep cut “O.P.” off of a transcribed Charles McPherson solo and breathes fire into “Devil Woman” and “Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me,” which were more like sketches when Mingus introduced them on 1962’s bluesy Oh Yeah album.

Learn more about I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – the White Flag on Amazon!

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.