Dated 1995 further explores the relationship between
poetry and music. A long solo bass introduction begins peacefully before
gathering pace, volume and rhythmic intensity. The exclamation
'MINGUS!', heralds a more theatrical approach to that of Ode to a Giant.
Chenault portrays Mingus as 'the blue bearded demigod of lust' playing
in 'the underworld cafe': a creature not wholly of this world but
mythic, 'a boogie man god'. Like Prometheus he has stolen the fire of
heaven, 'composed and conducted it in wood and metal', arming humanity
with his music.
Repeated enunciations of
'Mingus' alongside a dissonant motif divide poetic episodes,
highlighting a structural progression discernible at first hearing.
Proto's walking bass lines in arco ponticello counterpoint Chenault's
stark imagery: 'bass lines sharp as needles . . . that pop skin and
leave bloody tracks on veins'. Religious imagery continues this idea of
suffering torment for art: 'Must God be Mingus'.
An aggressive pizzicato walking bass accompanies verbal riffing on
nursery rhymes until, over bluesy false harmonics, Chenault nears a
conclusion: 'Mingus . . . Your are the fable, the fairy tale, the myth
of eternity. . .' As the music calms, Mingus' every note and gesture
achieves the permanence of 'pyramids, obelisks, avenues of sphinxes . .
.' Quieter still, while 'death in a porkpie hat strolls through the door
. . . just in time for the last set . . .'. Proto's bass, alone again,
manages one last defiant Mingus tag.
Chenault have created moving tributes to two revered musical figures
while articulately and passionately reappraising the significance of
jazz. Proto concentrates on musical rather than technical challenges,
and deftly removes the arbitrary boundaries between jazz and
Chenault also draws influences from a
wide cultural spectrum, ranging from classical Greece to Yoruba
folklore. His individual, rhythmic poetic language virtuosically
complements Proto's music. In challenging the reader/listener to embrace
his own reverential view of jazz he does occasionally rouse himself to
hyperbole, but delivers the potential for exciting, dramatic live
Structural landmarks guide the
listener, strengthening the narrative, but it is asking too much of any
audience to expect them to understand every layer of meaning, every
social and historical reference and every play on words and music, in
one live performance. The quality of work on offer here deserves and
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Works that include the spoken word can enliven any program and provide the audience with additional expressive experiences. In Mingus, Live in the Underworld, John Chenault has contributed a vivid, dramatic, and descriptive text that is the perfect compliment to Frank Proto's music. The moderately difficult bass part is infused with spiky dissonances, walking lines, and timbral variety. The combination makes for an unusual and dramatic work that effectively captures the spirit of Charles Mingus and his music. Either an orchestra or solo tuned bass part is accompanied by a separate text part for the narrator.
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The Merling Trio could certainly have picked a less crowded field to enter into with its third CD outing and first for Centaur, Music of Astor Piazolla and Frank Proto. Argentine composer Astor Piazolla is one of the most recorded figures among classical composers born after 1920, and although a lot of that attention has only come in the early 2000s, it has resulted in a considerable number of recordings. Nonetheless, these are some outstanding interpretations of Piazolla, and the Merling Trio should be credited with taking into the studio something it does well, rather than trying to prepare another thing for purposes of recording that's not fully baked.
However, the real focus of this release should be placed on the excellent Quartet for piano and strings of Frank Proto, who has long been regarded as perhaps the finest composer belonging to Cincinnati, OH, since Gunther Schuller was in town, but remains little known outside of the former "Queen City." In this latter work, the Merling Trio is joined by string bassist Tom Knific, resulting in the seldom, if ever, used chamber combination of violin, cello, piano, and string bass. Knific is able to switch out of the typically bowed role of the string bass in chamber music to the pizzicato voicing that we know from jazz, and this piece as a whole represents a highly successful -- one hastens to use this word -- fusion of jazz and Western Expressionism. In this sense, it does vaguely resemble a work of Schuller's, Conversation, written for the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Beaux Arts String Quartet back in the '50s, but with two huge differences. The two ensembles, and styles, are pitted directly against one another in Schuller's work, whereas Proto achieves the same sense of duality with one, and Proto also manages to attain a seamless and fluid combination of jazz and expressionist scoring, whereas Schuller, in 1958, is satisfied after achieving a mixture that's roughly oil and water. It is also worth mentioning that the last movement evokes a little of "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the final send-off, so what's not to like about that?
The Merling Trio is based out of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This disc was recorded on campus at the university's Dalton Center, and the recording is a cut well above the usual out-of-house production that Centaur incorporates into its release schedule from time to time. Music of Astor Piazolla and Frank Proto is a fun disc and will prove rewarding to listeners who are looking for something different, but comprehensible within the means of most tastes.