Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Haunting Solo Piano Perspective on the Dark, Politically Relevant Genius of Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus’ music is so colorful, and often so hard-hitting that you’d think it would translate naturally to solo piano. But there’s also triage involved: his tunes can be so intricate that the harmonic choices available to a pianist are staggering. On the new album of her solo Mingus arrangements. I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag – The White Flag (streaming at Sunnyside Records),, pianist Stephanie Nilles cuts loose with a revelatory set of classics, heavy on the political material, all of which is no less relevant today.

Mingus’ widow Sue was asked several years ago what direction her husband would have gone in, had he lived, and her response that he was most inclined toward what she termed the “third-stream,” embodying elements of jazz along with the classical music he’d been trained in. In that case, it’s hardly a stretch to think he’d dig this album.

The album title is sarcastic, drawing on a Mingus quote about white hegemony, on the eve of being evicted from his Manhattan loft. Nilles doesn’t waste any time getting down to business with an epic, strikingly terse, stride-inflected take of Fables of Faubus, complete with sarcastic vocalizing as she shifts from grim insistence to a stark, minimalist bluesiness as her left hand drops out completely out for awhile. It’s hardly what you’d expect in a song written by a bass player. But If anything, this is arguably even darker than the original anti-racist broadside, especially when Nilles hits that evil, circling music-box phrasing about a third of the way through.

She has pointillistic fun with pentatonics as East Coasting gathers steam, building to a dance that’s just short of a romp and a funny ending that does the composer justice. Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me sounds for a second that Nilles is going to make a slow drag out of it, but she opts for staccato agitation and gallows humor instead.

Nilles’ transcription of Charles McPherson’s sax solo from MIngus’ OP matches its steady, lickety-split ragtime flair. Her version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is stark and mutedly funereal, with Satie in the lefthand. She finds the ballad hidden deep within the bustling swing of Free Cell Block F, ‘Tis Nazi USA, but also plenty of unease and chaos: it screams out to you to revisit Mingus playing it and discover what she found there.

Devil Woman comes across as more of an exercise in blues phrasing: this devil only peaks her head through the door down to hell. Peggy’s Blue Skylight has a beautifully evocative, Debussyesque starriness balanced by moody bolero allusions. Pithecanthropus Erectus is the funniest number here, Nilles indulging in some deadpan stumbles in lieu of a stroll and a little cynical freewheeling.

She draws out some subtle echoes of Faubus in Remember Rockefeller at Attica, which otherwise comes across as a brisk Brubeckian walk with some unexpectedly jaunty flourishes.

She closes the album not with Mingus but with a mournfully minimalistic take of Coltrane’s Alabama, with a bit of Nina Simone’s take of the old Scottish folk song Black Is the Colour mixed in.

March 5, 2021 - Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , ,

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