Jazz Review
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Posted April 16, 2002
Published in the Los Angeles Times
Saturday, September 29, 2001
Jazz Review: Intriguing Match Doesn't Quite Jell
By Don Heckman, Special to The Times

When a collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Charles Mingus Orchestra was first announced as the opening event in the UCLA Performing Arts Center's fall season, the combination seemed bizarre. Was it a wildly imaginative, off-the-wall blending of creative musical entities, or a calculated effort by new UCLA Live director David Sefton to further attract the 25-45 age range demographic?                                                                                                                                                                                            Both, maybe. What actually surfaced at Royce Hall on Thursday night was indeed an impressive pair of creative entities, but without much in the way of blending.  

In its bifurcated way, the program had a lot to offer. The Mingus Orchestra, an 11-piece variation on the Mingus Big Band, employs instrumentation that offers the potential for a wide interpretive approach to the composer's work. The results, in the instrumental portions of the program, were marvelous: spirited romps through the gospel-driven energies of "Slop" and "Haitian Fight Song"; lovely renderings of "Myself When I Am Real" and "Eclipse," in which arranger Sy Johnson used the subtle colorations of the group's instrumentation to reach into the heart of the compositions.                                                                                                                                                                                          Further enhancing the Mingus selections, soloists such as pianist Dave Kikoski, tenor saxophonist Shamus Blake, trombonist Conrad Herwig and bassoonist Michael Rabinowitz--offering a rare display of jazz improvisation on the instrument--brought further life and vigor to this timeless music.  

The other side of the performance was equally compelling. The Costello selections reached across a good portion of his career, from "Watching the Detectives" to "Almost Blue," "Clubland," "Stalin Malone" and "Chewing Gum." In these numbers, the Mingus Orchestra played a supportive role, allowing Costello to reach out directly to the fans who cheered the opening bars of virtually all his songs. Despite the unfamiliar settings and poorly balanced sound (rare for Royce Hall), Costello was in fine form, moving easily from demanding intensity to lighthearted swagger.  

The problems arose in the efforts to combine two distinctly divergent artistic views. Costello's lyrics for Mingus' "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too," "Tonight at Noon," "This Subdues My Passion" and "Self Portrait in Three Colors"--despite their literary qualities and poetic flow--offered expansion where none was required.                                                                                                                                                                                        Mingus' use of such titles served an epigrammatic purpose--the focus for instrumental compositions. That said, Costello deserves credit for the effort and the quality of the results. Unfortunately his words (like Joni Mitchell's in her Mingus songs) bear the same relationship to Mingus' melodies that an elaborate descriptive essay would to a Japanese haiku . They're simply not needed.                                                                                                                                                                                            What is needed is for Mingus' music to receive the attention it deserves and is still not receiving. Given the enthusiastic response to this pairing, which prompted the Thursday show being added to the originally scheduled Friday performance, there is seemingly an audience for Sefton's eclectic attempts at synthesis that are scattered throughout his season. But for this particular evening, there was too little likelihood that the oil and water of its two disparate elements would ever fuse into Sefton's goal of collaborative innovation.                                                                                                                                                                                       Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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