Mingus & Amram Dig Langston Hughes
This CD was released in 2017, but unfortunately I had no knowledge of it. The concept is a good one going back to the 1950s, to recite poetry to jazz accompaniment. Way back when, David Amram was among the first to pursue this type of performance, but so was Eric Mingus’ father Charles, who accompanied Langston Hughes himself with his sextet in a series of poems (the flip side of the LP featured Hughes reading his poetry to a different jazz group featuring trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen).
This one features a tentet led by Amram on piano and featuring Eric Mingus as narrator and his wife, the outstanding alto and soprano saxist Catherine Sikora, along with guitarist Larry Simon, reedman Dan Davis, flautist Cynthia Chatis and a pretty hip rhythm section. Of course Mingus has a different voice and different style of delivery from Hughes, who read his poetry with a smile in his voice and a bit of “put-on” in his delivery, “Maybe I should just go and die!” he’d say in a cheerful tone of voice, implying of course the opposite.
Mingus’ delivery is relaxed and laconic, which fits the poetry very well without sounding like Hughes. He also sings a few phrases in a nice, bluesy voice. Amram is an effective pianist whose playing has the right rhythmic feel without being flashy in any way. He is the only accompanist on Weary Blues, whereas Scip Gallant’s Hammond organ and soft drums are more dominant on The Dream Keeper. The tenor sax and flute also have extensive features on this one, bringing it more in line with the kind of records that Hughes himself made.
But this is an album that impresses more by mood than by analyzing the music; nearly each track has a relaxed, almost lazy progression, like heat drifting through the air on a hot summer day in the South. Each track has its own background music/sounds to match the mood, i.e. Daybreak in Alabama is only Sikora’s alto sax with drums, whereas Border Line features Larry Simon’s electric guitar in a nice, bluesy style. In Time of Silver Rain has no piano; the background music is guitar, Hammond organ and bongo drums. Like, go man, go! Just go!!
The way the album is laid out, it’s almost like a narrative of Hughes’ life as seen through his poetry; one might have called this album An Evening Exploring Langston Hughes. It’s not preachy or hysterical like so much of today’s rhetoric; it’s an album that relaxes you so that you can get the point of the poetry easily, as if absorbing its message by osmosis. And that is its strength as well as its charm. Life is Fine, for instance, is one of the poems that Hughes himself recorded for Verve in 1959-60. Mingus reads it as if everything in it was serious, and it works in its own way, whereas Hughes put tongue firmly in cheek and delivered the lines for their comic effect…it works either way.
A really excellent album that works on two different levels. Dig it, man!
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge, 21 October 2021
“Standout moments are hard to identify as the statements are consistently stellar”
Langston Hughes, who died 50 years ago this month, was one of the most relevant American poets of the 20th century. Hughes defiantly stood as the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, wrapping his high art around African American vernacular and jazz traditions and writing revolutionary journalism in the pages of black liberation newspaper The Crisis and Communist Party magazine New Masses. The biting edge of radicalism would not be lost on his poetry, a point leapt upon by the opportunistic members of the House Un-American Activities Committee as the chill of the Cold War raked over the nation.
On The Dream Keeper, Eric Mingus pays homage, reciting powerful works of the poet. This son of jazz royalty is a gifted vocalist and poet in his own right, so his emotive impressions are indeed visceral. Much of the recitation is set against the compelling improvisations of pianist David Amram, who hung out with the Beats and collaborated with both Hughes and Jack Kerouac. But the other major musical voice here is guitarist Larry Simon, whose resumé runs from John Zorn and Lester Bowie to poets David Pinsky and Ed Sanders.
The album opens with Hughes’ most famous early work, “The Weary Blues”, as a Mingus/Amram duet. The pair aren’t just performing this piece; they are pulling the bluest strains through fingers, tongue and teeth. The title track follows, featuring an expanded version of Simon’s band Groove Bacteria, comprised of soprano saxophonist Catherine Sikora, Native American flutist Cynthia Chatis, alto saxophonist Don Davis (doubling on contra alto clarinet), organist Scip Gallant, bassist Chris Stambaugh, drummer Mike Barron and percussionists Shawn Russell and Frank Laurino. Quite effectively, the listener moves through a sound journey with duos of voice/piano or voice/guitar alternating with aspects of the large ensemble.
Standout moments are hard to identify as the statements are consistently stellar, but Sikora’s straining laments on the title track reel one in immediately. Her horn is similarly heard in “Democracy”, part of a triple entente with Davis and Chatis, casting an almost electronic, tearing sustain about Mingus’ voice. Listen carefully to the power of Hughes’ words and the inherently terrible timeliness they bear.
—John Pietaro, New York City Jazz Record, May 2017