In-demand Chicago bassist Ethan Philion — praised by bass legend Rufus Reid for his “wonderful internal pulse,” and by The Washington Post for his “well-honed chops and astounding musicality” — has long looked to Charles Mingus as a towering role model. Mingus’ highly physical bass technique, his up-front communicative style as a bandleader, his interest in blending composition and improvisation, his pursuit of a unified voice in both small and large group settings, and not least of all his uncompromising antiracist politics and the way they manifest throughout his oeuvre: these qualities continue to inspire Philion and so many others in the decades following Mingus’ untimely death from ALS in 1979, at age 56.
Now, in Mingus’ centennial year of 2022, Philion is proud to present Meditations on Mingus, a powerfully swinging and inventive set of Mingus masterworks as arranged by Philion himself and performed by a stellar 10-piece ensemble. “My goal was to put together a program of pieces that speak to current events,” Philion states. “The themes of the songs on the album — racism, prejudice, identity, economic inequality — are all still relevant to the world today. These compositions ask listeners to reflect on humanity’s continued capacity for evil, but as Mingus’s psychiatrist Edmund Pollock put it, they are also ‘a call for acceptance, respect, love, understanding, fellowship, freedom — a plea to change the evil in man and to end hatred.’”
The first piece that Philion arranged, “Meditation on a Pair of Wire Cutters,” is also known as “Meditations on Integration” or “Praying with Eric.” Composed by Mingus as a response to inhumane imprisonment in the South, it was a showpiece for the great early to mid-’60s sextet with Eric Dolphy, Johnny Coles, Clifford Jordan, Jackie Byard and Dannie Richmond — the band that Philion declares as “my main inspiration for performing most of this music.” Here it’s Geof Bradfield summoning the spirit of Dolphy on bass clarinet, followed by the fiery dueling trombones of Brendan Whalen and Norman Palm and the elevated pianism of Alexis Lombre. Throughout the set, in the powerful rhythm section tradition of Mingus and Richmond themselves, drummer and Chicago stalwart Dana Hall locks in with Philion at every step, giving the leader’s probing arrangements a firm foundation.
On “Prayer for Passive Resistance” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” alto saxophonist Rajiv Halim brings his raw and virtuosic best as a featured soloist, while on “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” it is trumpeter Russ Johnson weighing in with a distinctly emotive improvisation. Johnson and fellow trumpeter Victor Garcia also play their hearts out on the opening number, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America” (a.k.a. “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers”).
The arrangements break down into three basic categories: “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Once Upon a Time” and “Haitian Fight Song” are the most faithful to the original recordings but orchestrated for 10-piece group; “Meditations,” “Better Git It In Your Soul” and “Prayer for Passive Resistance” are essentially composites, with details drawn from a number of Mingus’ recorded versions; and “Self-Portrait” and “Rockefeller” contain new material by Philion himself. “Those pieces were flexible enough that I could shape the arrangement in ways that differed from Mingus but still preserved the feeling,” Philion explains. “It was all about finding way to encourage the types of individual and group improvisation that Mingus was so adept at creating in his bands.”
Philion contends that Mingus’ music, as revered as it is, remains underperformed in our time (with the clear exception of the Mingus Institute bands run by Sue Mingus). With Meditations on Mingus, Philion not only helps to redress that, he also taps into the sense of risk and uncertainty at the heart of the Mingus canon, a spirit heard on recent archival Mingus releases such as At Bremen 1964 & 1975 and Music Written for Monterey 1965 (both central to Philion’s listening diet). “There’s something about not being sure you’re going to play something exactly right that can give performances an edge of excitement that you don’t get when there’s utter certainty,” says Philion. “Mingus’ groups are at their most compelling when they’re well-rehearsed and also not entirely certain about what is about to happen, or if what is supposed to happen will work. The feeling of spontaneity and excitement in those Mingus recordings is what I hope my group achieves when we perform these pieces.”
released August 26, 2022
Ethan Philion - bass, arrangements
Russ Johnson - trumpet
Victor Garcia - trumpet
Rajiv Halim - alto saxophone
Geof Bradfield - tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
Max Bessesen - tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, flute
Norman Palm - trombone
Brendan Whalen - trombone
Alexis Lombre - piano
Dana Hall - drums
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This is a wonderful album! Dave Douglas is one of my heroes. He's more than a great musician. He has a vision for the music and a feeling for putting together a group which is unique. So, beside Joey Baron (another heavyweight and one of my absolute favourite drummers) he invited some young cats to this session. They play just great and make sure that this music sounds totally fresh, whilst at the same time being deeply rooted in the jazz tradition. Florian Arbenz