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Conrad Herwig: Soulfully Mad for Charles Mingus on The Latin Side of Mingus

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Conrad Herwig
Jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig

Conrad Herwig began paying his dues in Clark Terry’s ensemble before joining Joe Henderson’s Septet, where he began to flower. Featured performances with Tom Harrell, Joe Lovano and a host of other stellar musicians followed. Crucially, Herwig became a long-time associate of Eddie Palmieri, playing in the latter’s La Perfecta and the Afro-Caribbean Octet, and Michel Camilo’s 3+3. Then he landed the gig with the Mingus Big Band, filling what was Jimmy Knepper’schair in Mingus’ bands for decades from the 1950s until the great composer and bassist’s untimely passing. But in addition to his trombone duties, Herwig often wore the mantle of Musical Director in the Mingus Big Band, and was the arranger on the Grammy-nominated Live at the Tokyo Blue Note.

How do you honor Charles Mingus, not only one of the greatest musicians and bandleader since Duke Ellington, but also one of the great 20th century composers – who would have turned 100 years old this year [2022]? And what a legacy it is… one that his wife, Sue, has been guarding for decades since his untimely passing 1979. Today the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Orchestra and the Let My Children Hear Music foundation continue that legend. But now, it’s time to show the world another side to Mingus, one where Conrad Herwig and these fine musicians pledge allegiance to a Latin Side of Mingus.

Conrad Herwig: The Latin Side of Mingus
Conrad Herwig: The Latin Side of Mingus

Conrad Herwig, soulfully-mad about Mingus has also been exploring the Afro-Caribbean soundscape for decades. It’s no wonder that The Latin Side of Mingus would become everything it was meant to be if Mingus were your Muse. It would become a joyful voyage down the rapids of Mingus’ great oeuvre while enjoying the roaring river of Afro-Caribbean music. Together with Bill O’Connell and this magnificent ensemble, Herwig recreates Mingus’ music in the “Latin” idiom – an important exploration that Mingus himself had made twice in his own life.

In 1957 Mingus recorded the seminal Tijuana Moods, with its splendid “Ysabel’s Table Dance”, “Tijuana Gift Shop” and “Los Mariachis”. But that time Mingus had a band, with just Dannie Richmond building the percussion wall alongside the leader’s ferocious and lyrical bass lines. Not to mention the great [and mysterious] trumpeter Clarence Shaw and a bewitching Ysabel Morel dancing atop the table playing castanets.

In 1977 Mingus released Cumbia and Jazz Fusion which begins with a long and brilliant 28-minute orchestral work “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion,” followed by a 22-plus-minute excursion, “Music for Todo Modo.” In “Todo Modo” Mingus used a new palette of colours and tone textures with oboe (Paul Jeffrey), contrabass clarinet (Gary Anderson) and a whole “Latin percussion” orchestra – featuring, among others, the legendary Candido, Ray Mantilla, Daniel Gonzales, Bradley Cunningham, Jack Walrath and Mingus himself all playing percussion instruments (in addition to their specialty ones). The extended title track merges reeds and Latin percussion, thundering big-band passages, and a burlesque of “Shortnin’ Bread” that climaxes in cries of “Freedom! Freedom!”  What a trip!

Meanwhile Herwig made many albums on three labels between 1980s and the 1990s. But he hit gold with a celebrated The Latin Side ofseries which featured Afro-Caribbean arrangements of works by some of jazz’s most famous composers. Herwig’s Latin Side of John Coltrane [1998], Another Kind of Blue: Latin Side of Miles Davis [2005], Latin Side of Wayne Shorter [2009] and Latin Side of Joe Henderson [2014] all earned Grammy nods. Along the way he forged several important musical partnerships – notably with pianist Bill O’Connell and trumpeter Randy Brecker – both of whom have made monumental contributions to The Latin Side of Mingus.

O’Connell, already an accomplished arranger, continues his arranging sojourn on The Latin Side of Mingus. Randy Brecker made stellar contributions as a trumpeter on Me, Myself an Eye, a masterful album composed by a wheel-chair stricken and “noodling” Mingus, who had lost most of his faculties except his febrile composer’s brain and thus “realized” by trumpeter Jack Walrath.

For the centenary of Charles Mingus, HighNote has released the crowning glory of this Latin Side… series.  This mighty Latin Side of Mingus contains eight diamond-cut reimagined charts of brightness, fire and scintillation. Each track, brilliantly arranged by Herwig, O’Connell and others, is bejeweled with solos by both men, together with contributions from Randy Brecker, Alex Sipiagin, Robby Ameen and Camilo Molina.  Special mention must be made of the sinewy Craig Handy inhabiting the skin of George Adams and Eric Dolphy, and incomparable young bassist, Luques Curtis, given the tall order of occupying the throne of Mingus himself!

YouTube Playlist – Conrad Herwig: The Latin Side of Mingus

The “quintessential 20th Century American Composer”, Charles Mingus internalized every aspect of his life turning it all over inside body and soul. What emerged was music that, over the years, in every twist and turn, retained a pervasive, personal voice making every work Mingus’. His world-view was singular and, taken as a whole, everything in his oeuvre “danced” with the language of emotion. Herwig captures this language in a singularly evocative manner on The Latin Side of Mingus. By taking Mingus’ finest musical utterances and, without reducing their “compound” changes in harmony and rhythm, Herwig has turned Mingus’ multi-layered music into something that the composer upheld throughout his career: creating “awesomely simple” music.

The album begins with the ferocious elegance of “Gunslinging Bird” (originally titled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats”). Mingus was profoundly affected by Charlie Parker’s music. The song he wrote in a mythical American-Western idiom also acknowledges Bird’s relentless originality by honouring not only Bird’s harmonic inventions but his fiercely original rhythmic changes. Herwig’s tricky arrangement makes for an appropriately explosive opening to the album. The pacing of the Afro-Caribbean rhythmic inventions, back-and-forth with Mingus’ themes, together with breathtakingly short solos by Brecker, Herwig and O’Connell, together with a machine-gun solo by Molina imparts an appropriately ephemeral quality to the music right out of the gate.

“Boogie Stop Shuffle” is a classic Mingus chart, showcasing fast changes in tempo and mode. O’Connell’s arrangement has Herwig driving the music unifying theme and invention. Brecker picks up where the trombonist leaves off and indulges in a luminous high-wire act for a few bars before handing off to O’Connell. This is a soaring tribute to the emphasis that Mingus put on relentless inventiveness and improvisation.  “No Dejas Que Pase Aqui [Don’t Let It Happen Here]” is a heroic Latin interpretation of Mingus’ dolorous palimpsest. Rubén Blades’ invokes Mingus’ theatrical bitter-sweetness and unique lyricism with his narration. Handy walks the ghost of Eric Dolphy with the inclusion of bass clarinet as piano, brass and winds trade solos in the recreation of Mingus’ socio-political drama that evokes Bertolt Brecht.

In “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat Mingus created an everlasting ballad/standard/ode to Lester Young that floats into the spiritual realm. This is true ‘heart-music’ form the pen of Mingus; a composition evocative of an eternal farewell. The highlights here are short solos by Handy, Brecker, Herwig, O’Connell, Molina – and one by Sipiagin – which maintain the warm rush of emotion from one variation to the next. “Hora Decubitus” is the earlier incarnation of “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too.”  It is structured as a classic “round” (á la Frere Jacques), where solo upon solo is harmonically layered atop the other as the music builds to it final dénouement. Luques Curtis’ intro is authoritative with each percussive, heaving pizzicato tug of the contrabass strings perfectly intoned and articulated.

After performing his iconic Ellington Medley at Monterey in 1965, Mingus said: “I owe it all to Duke Ellington” He paid his eternal idol rich tribute with another ballad that achieved standard status: “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” Sipiagin’s whispering flugelhorn is lathered over by the radiant bell-like sounds of O’Connell’s Fender Rhodes. Craig Handy roars softly and Herwig adds fluttering warmth with their respective solos and the ballad is reborn. With “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” Mingus creates a complex tragi-comic theatre of Grecian proportions, complete with a breathless title. O’Connell’s arrangement adds drama to the work, while Herwig’s solo brings subliminal sensuality to the Latin side of things. What better selection for a grand finale than with “Better Get Hit In Your Soul”? This lusty 38-bar AABA-form up-tempo classic in 6/8 time is a challenging specimen for imparting a swaggering twist. But these magnificent musicians pull it off with dancing, idiomatic Latin solos. One after the other the musicians unfurl harmonic inventions before a thundering exchange between Camilo Molina and Robby Ameen. After demonstrating mighty crescendos in the riff passages, Brecker and Herwig return the churchy melody back to its blessed home. Now, come, listen and be mesmerized!

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