Mingus, an incomparable bass virtuoso and one of jazz’s preeminent composers, bandleaders, conceptualizers, and gadflies, died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Six years later, a box of manuscripts was discscered, which suggested that for nearly a quarter of a century he had been stitching various pieces into one grand, unfinished musical quilt, called Epitaph. In 1989, his widow, Sue Mingus, presented the work in concert as edited and conducted by Gunther Schuller and performed by an orchestra of 30 musicians. This recording is drawn from those performances, and it’s a revelation. More than two hours long, Mingus’ posthumous opus is remarkably coherent and intensely dramatic. Some of the 19 movements will be familiar to his admirers from classic albums- including ”Better Get It in Your Soul,” ”Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” and ”Freedom,” as well as reconceptualizations of Thelonious Monk’s ”Well You Needn’t,” Jelly Roll Morton’s ”Wolverine Blues,” Vernon Duke’s ”I Can’t Get Started,” and Mingus’ own ”Chill of Death” and ”Pithecanthropus Erectus.” Yet the whole is ultimately more powerful than the parts.
Inevitably, perhaps, Epitaph lacks the crispness and drive of Mingus’ own recordings. No conductor could be expected to exhort a band the way he did, and no bassist has ever replicated his deep, rousing sound-though Reggie Johnson comes very close. Yet Schuller and his marvelous musicians do capture the immediately distinguishable flavor of Mingus’ sinuous melodies, his crashing fortissimos, his oddly nostalgic harmonies. Like Duke Ellington, Mingus composed for specific musicians, and although only a handful of those he had in mind for Epitaph are present on this recording, the soloists are exemplary, among them Britt Woodman, John Handy, George Adams, Wynton Marsalis, Randy Brecker, and Victor Lewis. This is a performance that will be talked about for years.