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Chicago bassist Ethan Philion opens this album of Mingus compositions with the lesser-known “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called America,” and I’ll risk heresy by declaring it the best version on disc. Actually, not so risky: Mingus recorded this difficult work only once under this title, at a 1965 concert, where it suffered from lack of rehearsal and poor sound. That’s a low bar to clear, but Philion jumps it with room to spare. He balances and aligns the ensembles and crisply articulates the juxtaposition of cheery swing and introspective balladry; trumpeter Russ Johnson and young pianist Alexis Lombre re-create a lovely pas-de-deux before the closing chorale.
Meditations on Mingus would succeed if Philion did little more than restore the luster of this piece. The bar sits higher for better-known compositions like “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” and “Better Git It in Your Soul,” for which multiple recordings exist for comparison. But Philion — leading a dectet packed with Chicago’s A-list, including drummer Dana Hall, trumpeter Victor Garcia and reedists Rajiv Halim and Geof Bradfield, resplendent on bass clarinet — still makes these performances quite his own, with knowing touches that reflect his meditations on Mingus’ music.
For instance, on the original quintet recording of “Haitian Fight Song,” the horns enter in a hard-bop Dixieland free-for-all; wielding a larger band, Philion employs a round to bring in the horns, one at a time, before the polyphony blossoms. He borrows from Mingus’ later take on the tune (under the title “II B.S.”) by jettisoning the double-time section and eliminating the alto solo, creating a discreet hybrid of the two approaches. (Not to be shortchanged, alto saxophonist Max Bessesen gets to wield his pearly tone and supercharged technique on “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”)
Philion uses a similar effect on the rapturous “Self-Portrait in Three Colors”: The theme appears as if in a prism, then clicks into place like a kaleidoscope. He also adds colorful obbligatos to shape a couple of tracks, along with other ingenious wrinkles of the sort that — along with dazzling and deeply realized performances from all — lifts this album above so many of the year’s Mingus centennial tributes. — Neil Tesser