The emotional music of the “Angry Man of Jazz” – bassist, pianist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus – “blew my mind,” says 26-year old Montreal bassist Stephen Menold.
For six years, he mulled over how to respond to it. Now he’s put together his septet Oh. My. Mingus. “of all jazz cats [who] have very distinct playing personalities” to deliver their personal, reverential, and improvised take on the range of emotions in Mingus' music. They have been regularly performing in Montreal for the last year and a half, and will make their first Ottawa appearance this Saturday evening.
OttawaJazzScene.ca journalist Brett Delmage interviewed Oh. My. Mingus. arranger, leader and bassist Stephen Menold by email this week. This is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you discover Charles Mingus' music? Why does his jazz, performed and recorded 30 to 60 years ago, connect with you?
Stephen Menold: I first heard Mingus when I was first getting into jazz. One of my first records I stumbled upon was the Massey Hall record [Jazz at Massey Hall], which blew my mind. Then I think heard “Moanin’” and it hit me hard.
I’ve always been pulled towards it somehow or another. I remember when I was playing trumpet in grade school trying to solo and swing, though I’m sure it just sounded like a bunch of noise. I suppose it's the rhythm, there’s something in the swing and personalities of the musicians, you can hear it in their solos… especially Mingus.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why has Mingus and his music continued to resonate with you?
Menold: I think one of the first things is his passion. He was originally coined “The Angry Man of Jazz” and I get that. I often feel that fire and anger in myself. It feels good to hear someone let it out in their music.
But as I dig deeper I find that it’s not just anger, it seems to me that Mingus feels deeply. What I mean to say is I hear the music as this mosaic of intense emotion: Joy, Anger, Longing, Loss, Fear, Ecstasy, Reverence, and to bare those feelings to the world is an incredibly brave thing to do.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you come up with the group’s name, Oh. My. Mingus.? Was it inspired by Mingus’ album, Mingus Ah Um? Did that album particularly inspire you?
Menold: That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of that. Maybe subconsciously, but it more came from two things really. I wanted to present his music in a way that I felt hasn’t been approached before and so it’s kind of my take on Mingus. What I see in it and what I think people are missing out on. And I’m a sucker for alliteration.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What Mingus albums are you taking the pieces from?
Menold: I’m taking them from all over. I go through records and if something hits me we’ll do it. I try to only do material that I feel I can resonate with. Otherwise we’re just a cover band.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What approach are you and your band taking to the music: reverential or more using it as a springboard for improvisation?
Menold: We try to do both. Something like reverential improvisation, where we do our best to honour the music, while still expressing our individuality.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Are the other band members as familiar with Mingus?
Menold: I’d say they are. I’m definitely the bigger Mingus fan but everybody is hip to the music. I picked the band for their personalities, as I knew that we can play the music, but every single member has something to say that they bring to the table.
They’re all jazz cats, but they have very distinct playing personalities. I chose each member for their own style. Joe Faracutti on piano has his whole T. Monk vibe going. Alex Lepanto (drums) has this big personality and takes the space he deserves. Adam Hebert (trumpet) really lives life to the fullest and you can hear it in his tone. Edouard (trombone) listens with big ears and gives everyone what they need. Phil Brochu (tenor) works really hard and takes his craft seriously. Pat Luneau (bari) has a strong personality and plays dirty which is exactly what you need in a bari player.
This Ottawa show, I actually am honoured to have Tariq Amery playing tenor this time and Alex Dodier on bari, who are some real bad asses and I’m super-excited to have them.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: A septet is obviously more challenging to pull together for a performance or recording than a trio. Why did you decide on this larger size of group for Oh. My. Mingus.?
Menold: Yeah, seven is a big number, but it was also the smallest I could conceive of without sacrificing the sound. I wanted to get that big band sound, but as it turns out it's the perfect size! It may be a hassle in terms of organizing but I wouldn’t change a thing.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Why are you bringing this project to Ottawa now? Is it part of a tour?
Menold: This is my first performance outside of Montreal with a jazz band! It’s more of a one-off than a tour but it's the beginning of reaching out with Oh. My. Mingus. and spreading the music as far as I can.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: In Adam Marsh's Nexus 2018 interview with you, you said: “I find a huge, glaring problem with modern jazz today is that with colleges and universities taking it as an art form, they deconstruct it to the point of taking the emotion out of it. Just looking at the notes and looking at the mathematics, I find a lot of modern players… I’m not trying to throw shade or start any battles, but it seems like there’s a much larger push for being compositionally creative.”
What did you mean by “it seems like there’s a much larger push for being compositionally creative”?
Menold: I think I meant that people are constantly trying to innovate to the point where we have lost the roots of the music. Complex chords, crazy complicated melodies for the sake of being difficult or unique… I guess what I mean to say is that I feel like in the modern jazz movement we have gotten so caught up with theory and compound time that we have lost the “Roots and Blues”. What makes people unique is their message and their sound, not their ability to shred in 5.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How does that coincide with or contrast with your approach?
Menold: I try to get back to the roots as much as possible in my own compositions. I write blues and think about who influences me and who I want to emulate in my playing and compositions. I try to focus on the melodies, making beautiful, meaningful music instead of forcing complexity for complexity's sake. Once again I’m not trying to start a feud with anyone, this is just my take.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What musical or personal elements do you like to use to put emotion into the arrangement and/or performance?
Menold: It really depends on the piece. Some are light, like “O.P.”, where I wrote kind of a classic big band intro that sets up the piece… but there are also pieces like “Weird Nightmare” that are dark, brooding and complex. I really rely on my ear and my imagination. I listen and think, “What is he / are they trying to communicate? Is there another way to illustrate that?” I rely on my ear and my imagination a lot of the time.
As for performing… I shout a lot. Mostly it’s so that everyone is on the same page or if I have an idea in the moment and I need to cue everyone, but also I think it helps encourage the band to play out.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: What do you bring to the performance and / or arrangements about yourself?
Menold: I find it really hard to talk about my personal attributes… but I feel like I connect with the music, I get excited to play and I like to think the audience can see that. Also, I try to encourage the audience to participate: yelling, clapping shouting… it’s all good. I want to get people engaged in the music.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Has arranging and performing jazz helped you discover yourself more?
Menold: I’d say so. It really forces me to think about my intentions and my actions when I’m dealing with something so historically loaded as jazz. It’s hard to talk about discovering myself without sounding high-art-y and esoteric, but essentially it’s challenged me as a musician and helped me express myself as a human.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Menold: Come to the show. It’s a great band and we play great music. And …. go Senators?
“Oh. My. Mingus” performs at Queen Street Fare on Saturday September 14, at 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 8 p.m.) Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Purchase advance tickets
Get there! Queen Street Fare is located at 170 Queen Street, just east of Bank Street and by the Parliament LRT station which is expected to open that afternoon. Any downtown-bound bus and particularly those on the Transitway will also get you there within a few blocks. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!