The footage brings to life Charles Mingus’ historic premier of his large-scale "Epitaph" opus, discovered after his death in 1979, and performed at Lincoln Center on June 3, 1989 by a thirty-piece orchestra. Conducted by Gunther Schuller, many of Mingus’ band members, including saxophonist George Adams and trumpeter Jack Walrath, comprise the band, also featuring a young upstart trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. With grants supplied by the Ford Foundation and a labor of love by others, Schuller, for one, assisted with the recompilation of the monumental work, where the composer’s widow Sue Mingus, relates the sequence of events during the intro.
The sold out audience witnesses the largest and lengthiest piece ever composed for a jazz orchestra. At two hours and eleven minutes, they render ballsy blues motifs, finger-snapping swing, and brash horns accents to complement the passionate solo jaunts. As the camera crew instills the fluid motion via pans, zooms and aerial shots of the band, while also honing in on Schuller’s conduction.
Mingus’ masterpiece treks along like a panorama of his life amid all the vicissitudes. The piece is constructed upon a potpourri of emotive aspects. There are temperate moments and austere frameworks. But Mingus’ legendary compositional attributes impart movements designed on traditional jazz, sublime phrasings and quaint passages, often uplifted by stirring solo jaunts by Adams, alto saxophonist Bobby Watson and pianist Sir Roland Hanna. Whereas, drummer Victor Lewis expertly punctuates the arrangements with closed-hand cymbal shots, but ups the ante on the previously recorded Mingus piece "Better Get Hit In Your Soul."
It is common knowledge that Duke Ellington markedly influenced Mingus from a compositional standpoint. In turn, "Epitaph" offers a comprehensive glimpse of the composers’ use of chromatic horns charts and the sensitivity that ingratiates this work in particular. The music is timeless and it is easily discernible that the musicians gave it their all via these interconnecting themes that surface as a history of modern jazz, all enfolded into a tour de force presentation.