Mingus and Sikora Pay Tribute to Butterflies

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CHRYSALIS / MINGUS-SIKORA: The Work of Spring. Hangin’ Under the Leaves. Bugs in the Sun. Wrapped Up Tight. The Inconvenience of Wings. Inside the Chrysalis. Slip Into Liquid. Nabukov’s Net and Needle / Eric Mingus, voc/bs/gtr; Catherine Sikora, t-sax/sop-sax / private issue available as download or cassette tape

Here’s something highly unusual: an album of pieces dedicated to butterflies, and specifically influenced by Vladimir Nabokov’s study of them, by Charles Mingus’ son Eric and saxophonist Catherine Sikora. The album, which came out on November 9, is only available via a limited run of 50 cassette copies or as a digital download from Bandcamp.

The music is an unusual combination of old-time blues (both in the guitar work and the soulful singing) with more modern jazz forms. On the opening track, Sikora’s tenor saxophone plays subliminal but atonal commentary beneath Mingus’ spoken lines, and the guitar work also slowly morphs towards atonality. It’s really difficult music to describe, but fascinating to listen to. The words in this first piece center around a butterfly trying to avoid a predator’s eyes while bursting forth to enjoy the blossoming of spring. Again: very unusual and hard to describe, but interesting!

The second track opens with Sikora’s tenor while Mingus plays buzzing sounds on the bass (probably emulating insects) before moving back to the guitar—yet the buzzing bass continues to make its presence felt. This perfectly captures the piece’s title, Hangin’ Under the Leaves. Eventually, Sikora plays in double time, creating swirling figures to simulate a butterfly in flight. And please note: this music is not so far out that it has no grounding in musical form. As Mingus’ father once famously said, “You can’t improvise on nothing!”

eric mingusOn Bugs in the Sun, Mingus creates another poem about the life of a butterfly while playing a drone on his bass while Sikora triple-tracks herself on saxophones, dovetailing busy, swirling triplets around one another. To my mind, this is music influenced by Eric’s father but not a carbon copy by any means, even though his later bowed bass solo resembles some of Charles’ work. Wrapped Up Tight begins with pizzicato bass with guitar, playing odd figures with a blues bias before Sikora comes flying in on soprano sax. There’s a certain spaciness in this music that I really liked. Sikora is an outstanding improviser who really creates music when she plays, not just flurries of notes with no interior logic or meaning.

sikoraShe remains on soprano for The Inconvenience of Wings, opening the track a cappella before Mingus enters, almost stealthily, on guitar, playing a few sparse chords here and there behind her. By the way, I really liked his guitar work because it has an edge to it. I’m sick of listening to “soft jazz” guitarists nowadays. Inside the Chrysalis is undoubtedly the strangest piece on the album, beginning with quiet but busy pizzicato bass figures while a celesta tinkles lightly in the background. Sikora returns to tenor on this one, and her extended improvisation is superb, yet the heart of the piece is the prose poem recited by Mingus while a chorus of Minguses, multiple tracked, hum in harmony behind him. Afterwards, Sikora returns to play some really “outside” improvisations that fill out the rest of the track.

Slip Into Liquid starts with Sikora playing tenor, followed by another triple-tracking session of her horn. This goes on for some time, with more and more sax “voices” added to the mix, until it becomes a jumble of sound. One would have to listen carefully to this piece several times over just to hear what each line is doing. By the 4:20 mark, however, some of the voices drop out, and in fact towards the end there are only four Sikoras playing—two interweaving their lines and the other two playing a drone B-flat that slowly creeps up in volume and overtakes the music until the fade-out ending. Trippy!!

On the last track, Nabukov’s Net and Needle, Mingus’ bass plays an alternating drone figure that grumbles like a bullfrog in a pond, joined eventually by Sikora on tenor playing alternating bluesy and busy lines. Mingus then comes back in for a sort of sung poem about “catching the light” and “the use of curious tools,” the “drive to collect you and put you on display.” When the poem and music stop, Mingus plays a bass drone high up on his instrument while a sort of light percussive sound goes on in the background. The drone eventually becomes an insistent rhythmic figure, then after another pause one hears Sikora playing down very low in the tenor sax range, sad little figures, evidently representing the dead butterflies. And that’s how it ends.

This is clearly one of the most creative, original and interesting jazz albums I’ve heard all year. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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