Eagle Rock Entertainment // 1989 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // April 29th, 2009
"Freedom for your mama, freedom for your daddy, freedom for your brother and sister, but no freedom for me."
Charles Mingus, one of the most influential jazz composers of our time, died before he could see his magnum opus performed in its entirety. That's precisely why he called it Epitaph; he says he wrote it for his tombstone.
Mingus passed in 1979, leaving behind not only a remarkable legacy but a mess of compositions, recording, and notes. When Andrew Homzy went in to archive and catalogue everything, he discovered a massive 500-page score that featured 19 movements for 31 musicians. Epitaph was the largest jazz composition ever written at the time, and was finally performed live in 1989 at the Alice Tully Hall in New York City.
Eagle Vision presents that 1989 performance, which was recorded live for British television, in its original, retro glory. The concert, which lasts over two hours, begins with an introduction by Sue Mingus, Charles' wife. Once conductor Gunther Schuller takes the stage, however, Epitaph is played straight through with incredible skill and creativity by an orchestra filled with jazz veterans -- including a very young Winton Marsalis.
The music itself is incredibly moving and brilliant. If you're a fan of Mingus, then you'll instantly recognize his contrapuntal orchestrations, the gospel hymns, swelling low brass sections, and the occasional spoken word segment. While his music can at times be very challenging and chaotic, Mingus' tunes can also be very accessible. Epitaph is like a history lesson, not only through Mingus' personal career, but through jazz itself. He weaves in references to other jazz greats (like in the piece "Monk, Bunk & Vice Versa (Osmotin)") and even does a full-on cover (he tears apart a version of Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues"). Because there were some large gaps in Mingus' weathered and confusing composition notes, Schuller tried to fill in the blanks a bit. He works in the Mingus classic "Freedom," which features the entire orchestra chanting behind the recitation of free verse poetry. The individual compositions, much like Mingus' music in general, are varied and energetic, yet create a cohesive masterpiece. The performance ends with a three-part improvisation by the entire 31-piece orchestra. Risky stuff, but they pull it off beautifully.
For as astounding as this performance is, you won't really be wowed by the visual presentation. The camera work and editing is fine, about on par with any concert you see on PBS or BBC, but the video transfer itself is pretty awful. The picture has that late-80s blur to it, and the whole thing looks like it was pulled off of a VHS. That isn't really an issue whatsoever, of course, because the sound quality is excellent. It was only recorded in Dolby stereo, but the audio is crisp and bright with very few instances of inconsistent volume.
The disc itself doesn't come with any special features. I would have loved to have heard about the process of actually recreating this unknown score, or perhaps a featurette about the more recent performances of Epitaph in 2007. But what it lacks in supplements, it makes up for in liner notes. The DVD is accompanied by an excellent booklet (adapted from the CD release of Epitaph back in 1990) that thoroughly explains each song and various challenges found in piecing together everything. It's exceedingly well-written, and certainly helped to give more meaning to the composition.
Epitaph has only been performed live a handful of times since it was discovered, and this is the first time that its premiere has ever been released on video. If you're a fan of Charles Mingus, or jazz in general, this is not to be missed.
Review content copyright © 2009 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Charles Mingus Site