DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Off and on for two decades, trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy has played in New York's Mingus Big Band, dedicated to the music of the late Charles Mingus. On the band's new album, Lacy steps out front, singing a batch of Mingus songs. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's weirdly right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORTRAIT")
KU-UMBA FRANK LACY: (Singing) I've seen a lot of pictures, most of the beauties of the world. From places I've traveled I still recall the quaint melody as I thrill. Painting my own...
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Composer Charles Mingus loved words as well as music. He was writing lyrics and using singers from the first and would sing or recite his own texts later. He also wrote jazz's great autobiographical novel, the stylish, funny and disturbing "Beneath The Underdog." Mingus always got to the heart of things. His lyrics, like his performances, might overflow with feeling. This is from the young Charles Mingus's "Weird Nightmare."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEIRD NIGHTMARE")
LACY: (Singing) You're there to haunt me when you say she doesn't want me. I've been hurt. Do you know what that means? Weird nightmare, take away the grief you've shared. Weird nightmare, mend a heart that's torn and has paid the price of love a thousandfold. Bring me a love with a heart of gold.
WHITEHEAD: "Weird Nightmare," first recorded in 1946, sung by Ku-umba Frank Lacy. It's from the not-so-accurately titled album "Mingus Sings," co-starring Lacy and the Mingus Big Band. Frank Lacy's voice and blustery delivery can be comically gruff, but he gets the right earnest intensity. And he knows all the Mingusy inflections from playing in the band with a trombonist's crack timing and attention to every note's pitch and vibrato. Lacy has what Mingus prized, a strong, individual voice. This is "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines" with Joni Mitchell's lyric about an Iowan's hot streak in Vegas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRY CLEANER FROM DES MOINES")
LACY: (Singing) I talked to a cat from Des Moines. He said he ran a cleaning plant. The cat was clanking with coin. Well, he must've had a genie in his lamp 'cause every time I dropped a dime, I blew it. He kept ringing bells, nothing to it. He got three oranges, three lemons, three cherries, three plums. I'm losing my taste for fruit. Watching the dry cleaner do it like Midas in a polyester suit. It's all luck. It's just luck. You get a little lucky and you make a little money.
WHITEHEAD: Wayne Escoffery on tenor saxophone. Charles Mingus's melodies can move in odd ways, but they are oddly singable. The weird dips make voices sound good. The lyricist heard from on "Mingus Sings" also include Elvis Costello, who sang a couple of tongue twisters. And there's a recitation penned by poet Langston Hughes. I admit, I prefer Mingus's own words heard on four tunes here. That said, while drummer Doug Hammond was with Mingus in the '70s, he penned a sharp lyric for the previously unheard tune "Dizzy Profile." It's about trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and how revolutionary ideas lose their sting over time and how to maybe fix that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIZZY PROFILE")
LACY: (Singing) There was once a time a friend of mine would play a melody and there would be a song. Man, he used to say a crazy friend but when he would play his trumpet sound, we all would gather round. Dizzy made the songs, bebop was his name. But misunderstanding came to turn around, it's meeting them. What the music said to play about we always never knew until we grew the sound. So remember now that crazy sound that he will begin to understand a storyline again.
WHITEHEAD: Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band with trumpeters Jack Walrath, Alex Norris and Lew Soloff, who passed away not long after the recording. Mingus would teach musicians melodies by singing them. And his horns could sound eerily like his voice. This Mingus Big Band catches that vocalized quality. It doesn't hurt one of their own is singing out front. There are good soloists new and old, including saxophonists Alex Foster and Craig Handy and a couple of newly unearthed compositions. The title "Mingus Sings" is a shameless cheat, but the music's worthy of the Mingus brand.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Mingus Sings" featuring Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band on the Sunnyside label. On tomorrow's show, after 16 years, Jon Stewart is stepping down as host of "The Daily Show." What will America do without him? We'll listen to excerpts of our interviews with him and with one of his executive producers. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.