Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuesday Night in Greenwich Village: The Washington Square Music Festival presents the Charles Mingus Orchestra at Washington Square Park

Tonight we heard the outstanding intricate, lush sounds of the Charles Mingus Orchestra at the final concert of the Washington Square Music Festival's 52nd season in Washington Square Park.

We're actually not sure if all the Festivals have taken place in the park. Tonight we were back in the location of the first one in 1953, we've read, so obviously some years were skipped. Either way, it's an amazing record even in New York.

Last year, due to the construction that went on all summer, there was no Festival here. This year, the new stage still isn't complete, so the musicians played in the park's northwest quadrant in front of the monument to the engineer Alexander Lyman Holley. (We always knew him just as "Holley" and just looked him up.)

We know who Mingus was, of course. People named their kids after him in Brooklyn after all. But here's some of the promo material:
Charles Mingus (1922-79) double-bass player, composer and pianist: Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts, California, his earliest musical influences came from the church– choir and group singing– and from hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when he was eight years old. He studied double bass and composition (five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with the legendary Lloyd Reese) while absorbing vernacular music from the great jazz masters, first-hand. In the 1940s he played with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton and Billy Taylor. In the 1950s after working with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and others, he formed his own publishing and recording companies to protect and document his growing repertoire of original music. He also founded the Jazz Workshop, a group which enabled young composers to have their new works performed in concert and on recordings. Although he wrote his first concert piece, “Half-Mast Inhibition,” when he was 17 years old, it was not recorded until 20 years later by a 22-piece orchestra with Gunther Schuller conducting. It was the presentation of “Revelations” which combined jazz and classical idioms, at the 1955 Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts, that established him as one of the foremost jazz composers of his day. The New Yorker wrote: “For sheer melodic and rhythmic and structural originality, his compositions may equal anything written in western music in the twentieth century.”

The Charles Mingus Orchestra was assembled in 1999 by Sue Mingus, and plays with the intensity of the Mingus Big Band, but with a focus on composition and less emphasis on soloing. Its distinctive sound emerges from an expanded repertory and more exotic instrumentation, including bassoon, bass clarinet, French horn, and guitar. Sue Mingus, Charles's widow, (pictured blurrily above) spoke before the music and came onstage briefly just after "Meditations for Moses," stunning alto and bass solos, to justly praise the arrangement for the piece created by the orchestra's leader and bass player Boris Kozlov.

Despite the large crowd when we got there, we managed to squeeze into a lone seat in the middle of the second row in the side section of chairs. Our view of the orchestra was partially blocked by speakers, but the sound was great.

Councilmember Margaret Chin presented the Festival's executive director Peggy Friedman and NYU's Alice Hurley with a plaque honoring the event. The Festival is under the auspices of the Washington Square Association, Inc.

The concert seemed to be one luscious piece after another. The orchestra featured Craig Handy, alto saxophone//flute
Scott Robinson, tenor saxophone/flute
Ku-umba Frank Lacy, trombone
Kenny Rampton, trumpet
Donald Edwards, drums
Boris Kozlov, bass
Michael Rabinowitz, bassoon
Jeff Scott, French horn
David Gilmore, guitar
Doug Yates, bass clarinet

It began with "Taurus in the Arena of Life," which like the "Meditations for Moses" mentioned earlier, was arranged to the masterly Gunther Schuller, who like Mingus, was (is - he's still around) extraordinarily versatile.

Here are some clearer pics of the Mingus Orchestra. There's also a 14-piece Mingus Big Band and a 7-piece Mingus Dynasty among the Mingus Bands managed by Sue.

One of our favorite pieces tonight was "Consider Me," a collaboration with Langston Hughes, on which Hughes's moving lyrics were read with the mellifluous voice of trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy. Here's a video from that 2008 performance of Mingus's "The Weary Blues," another collaboration with Hughes:

Here's the orchestra at that 2008 Washington Square Music Festival. There were many great pieces tonight, and the musicians were brilliant in their solos - for example Jeff Scott on the French horn, rarely heard on jazz, on "Noon Night."

The park was beautiful and crowded when we walked around during intermission and afterward the concert.

We started hanging out in Washington Square Park in the summer of 1969. Forty-one summers ago we were 18 and spending whole days at the fountain. This shot is taken then from our usual spot.

The recently renovated fountain is a lot more beautiful and functional, like much of what we see in Manhattan landmark locations, but we still are pretty fond of the tacky old days.

We're really grateful to have finally gotten to the Washington Square Music Festival.

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