“Epitaph” is one of jazz’s greatest indulgences, a wildly diverse, multi-part, partly-open-ended suite for double big band that its creator Charles Mingus once called a symphony. It’s rarely done — and even Mingus never heard it done in its entirety, whatever that may be. “Epitaph’s” reconstructor and champion Gunther Schuller brought it to the Walt Disney Concert Hall Wednesday night, promising to roll out some additional movements that had been unearthed since its belated 1989 premiere. Alas, for some reason — most likely time constraints — very little of the “new” material actually got played. So what remained was “Epitaph” as it pretty much stood in 1989, and that was enough to get a handle on this huge, at-times visionary work.
Mingus had been assembling this sprawling organism since his teens, spinning off some of its components now and then as separate pieces for his various bands. After a 1962 fiasco of a premiere of parts of “Epitaph” in New York’s Town Hall, Mingus washed his hands of the project, which wasn’t heard of again until Schuller performed it and recorded it for Columbia a decade after Mingus’s death.
The piece will always be a problem child, since by definition there is no definitive edition. The manuscript contained missing endings, indecipherable paste-overs, portions that Schuller had to use conjecture to complete. It’s hard to figure out where the “new” material would fit in – and in any case, all we heard was “Intuition,” which was “superimposed” on top of the existing “Moods In Mambo,” and a gorgeously effusive homage to Duke Ellington, “This Subdues My Passion.”
Yet “Epitaph” turns out to be a perfect title since it defines Mingus as an original synthesis of the past, present and future of music — reaching out to the radical avant-garde with wandering dissonances worthy of Charles Ives; looking back to gospel, Jelly Roll Morton, Vernon Duke, bebop, Mingus’s own greatest hits (“Better Get It In Your Soul”), and above all, Ellington. The screaming sonorities in the brass recall Stan Kenton and hardly anyone else in jazz, and Mingus took Ellington’s use of plunger-mutes to new vistas of wild expression. There are solo opportunities for strangers to jazz like the oboe and bassoon (the latter wielded brilliantly by Michael Rabinowitz in “Wolverine Blues”).
Ultimately “Epitaph” is not Mingus’s true long-form masterpiece — “The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady” is — and it could use some pruning, for some sections just ramble on morosely. But Schuller, now 81, tirelessly kept this hard-working, elephantine 31-piece big band rolling, while providing a running professorial commentary from the podium. Hopefully Schuller’s way will be just one of many solutions for Mingus’ massive tombstone of a work.