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Bassist Charles Mingus was an ingenious composer whose socially conscious music was rooted in both Black American heritage and Western classical tradition. On the vibrant I Pledge Allegiance to the Flag — the White Flag, solo pianist Stephanie Nilles interprets 10 of Mingus’ works as well as saxophonist John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Nilles does justice to the originals as well as imprinting them with her individuality.
The album’s opener, “Fables of Faubus,” was written in protest of the Arkansas governor’s 1957 forced school segregation. Nilles sets an expectant ambience with resonant chords and politically aware lyrics. She then launches into a soulful melody built out of alternating percussive notes and shimmering phrases, shifting from earthy rhythms to ethereal lines with hints of atonality. Nilles infuses her melancholy with righteous anger and her forlorn contemplation with visceral emotion.
Elsewhere, Nilles’ reading of the intricately composed “Free Cell Block F, ’Tis Nazi U.S.A." — inspired by a notorious prison block in the 1970s — is subtle and masterful. The pianist starts off with angular refrains setting a dramatic mood. With her right hand, she plays the main theme with fiery elegance, flirting delightfully with dissonance. Her left hammers out infectious vamps that coalesce into a rousing cadence.
The concept behind this recording developed out of Nilles’ 2019 performance of Mingus’ composition “OP” in Germany. Nilles’ version, included here, is a transcription of saxophonist Charles McPherson’s brilliant solo on the piece. Uptempo and joyous, Nilles’ sublime and fluid rendition balances virtuosity with depth of feeling and deceptive simplicity with sophistication.
Mingus’ music has always been relevant, yet Nilles’ endows it with a contemporary urgency. She demonstrates a thorough and genuine understanding of the material, which makes this homage simultaneously deferential and vividly personal.