Alto saxophonist Greg Ward‘s new album, out this week, is his first in five years. Touch My Beloved’s Thought, credited to Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, is an interpretation of Charles Mingus‘s 1963 album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. But rather than simply re-record the music, Ward and the rest of the group (tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman, tenor and baritone saxophonist Keefe Jackson, cornetist Ben LaMarGay, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Norman Palm, bass trombonist Christopher Davis, pianist Dennis Luxion, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Marcus Evans) take fragments of Mingus’s epic composition and use them as jumping-off points. Some of the bits are major themes on Black Saint, and will be immediately recognizable to fans; others are smaller, and require Ward and company to head into territory all their own.
The appeal of the piece goes beyond the music, though. In live performance, it’s accompanied by the work of 15 dancers, choreographed by Onye Ozuzu. Watch video of a dress rehearsal of the full piece below:
Greg Ward spoke to Burning Ambulance by phone from Chicago, about the genesis of the project, how it came together, and what his plans for its future are.
When did the idea for this project first occur to you, and how did it change from then to now?
Well, at first, just in a kind of a random conversation with Mike Reed, he mentioned that Roell Smidt, one of the producers of the project and the director of Links Hall here in Chicago, had asked him about doing something with [Black Saint]. They originally just wanted to put dance to the original work, and they wanted Mike to do it, and he just mentioned it in passing, and I was like, Oh, OK. They mentioned that they wanted him to work with a choreographer, and I just thought it sounded like an awesome piece that Mike was going to do, and that I hoped to be involved in in some kind of way, since we’ve collaborated quite a bit over the last 13 years. So then Mike sent me an email with a link to the recording, to check it out, because at that point I hadn’t heard of the piece. Unfortunately. So I listened to it, and I was completely blown away by it, and it was the same thing—I was like, Wow, this is incredible, I hope to be involved in whatever you create. And then, shortly after that, he called and asked me if I would want to actually lead the project, and I told him of course. They said they were going to work on putting it together, and I didn’t hear from them for a while, and then I got an email in maybe January 2015 that the project was going to happen and we needed to set up a meeting with the choreographer, Onye Ozuzu, to see if she would be down for the project as well.
We had a meeting in February, and we all agreed that we’d like to do something with this work, or something based on this work, and decided to jump in and figure out what was going to happen. The biggest thing was to decide whether or not we were gonna do a transcription, or an arrangement, or go a different direction and do something based on Mingus’s idea. And we eventually decided to go with that idea first. From my end, I just felt like the way Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was created, I don’t know that you could really write it down and perform it and have it be as special. Because there’s so many overdubs, and you can tell they chopped things up and laid things in, almost like a modern DJ, or someone doing sampling. Almost making a collage. And I thought it wouldn’t be a strong presentation, just to try to recreate that. So we decided to go our own way, and my idea from that point on was to create things that were kind of inspired by the overall feel of that piece, or digging in and kind of reconceptualizing some of these rare moments in the piece, or some of the bigger moments in the piece. I took those and put them through my lens and then made something completely different. His piece was a big inspiration, of course, and I made sure that—well, something that I wanted to accomplish was that the people who really loved the work, Mingus’s work, would give me the OK, like, “Oh, I see; the feeling of Mingus’s work is here.” You know? But still my voice and my music.
Now, on Onye the choreographer’s side, there really wasn’t a blueprint or anything, because the piece hadn’t been performed with dancers by Mingus. So she didn’t have a video to kind of model her dance from, but she really did the homework as well. She spent a lot of time dancing along to excerpts of his work, and she would send me those videos, and I would write music inspired by her movements, and also it just informed me of what kind of movement and facility I was gonna be working with. Like, what did the dancers I would be working with have? And it was great that we had a good amount of time for a commission like this. We had maybe six months, so we could go back and forth and really craft something that felt like it was balanced between dance and music. So that’s where it began, and that’s what we presented. A 10-piece group with 15 dancers. Millennium Art was the premiere, but we did a dress rehearsal at Constellation, and it’s been a real treat.
The music is obviously Mingus-inspired, but it’s definitely its own thing. The bass playing, for example, is definitely not super-Mingusy; it’s lusher than that, it kind of reminds me of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West work in a way. I’m curious how Mingus-y did you want it to get, and how much you wanted to step to the side and do your own thing. What was the balance?
Well, I believe that compositionally, I was trying to capture, like you said, some of those colors, the orchestration, or some melodic fragments, just some of the flavors. Like, there’s some flamenco-esque things like there are in the chart, and there are some avant-garde free-for-all moments happening here and there. Those are things I think are trademarks of that work, and of Mingus’s work in different contexts as well. Now, I don’t really think that anybody could be Mingus, or play like that, because he was such a bright color. His voice was so strong and unique. So I didn’t really, in my notes in rehearsal, I wasn’t trying to get the musicians to do any sort of imitation or any sort of “play in this style”—there were no notes like that. But I feel like I gathered the right cast of musicians to present these textures. And also, if we’re doing something in the style of Mingus—like, Mingus’s band had a group of people who expressed themselves so well, and weren’t really trying to be anybody else. They couldn’t be anybody else, and maybe that’s why he organized those folks. So I feel like I got the right folks to accomplish that—to present those colors well, but also, in the moments where they might have a solo or something, to express themselves just as strongly.
It’s being released on Greenleaf—did they put up any money, or did you fund it yourself and bring it to them complete?
We recorded it ourselves, and we had a finished product, and Stephen Buono, who’s doing publicity on this, as well as Matt Merewitz, independently of Stephen, they both had a copy of the recording that we were shopping to a few labels, and they both separately sent it to Dave Douglas. And Dave responded to me in an email, saying that he was interested, and I was like, OK, he’s interested, well, that’s cool. But then he wrote back and let me know that he was really interested, and wanted to meet about it. So they paid for the production of CDs, and also being part of Greenleaf means you get to use their distribution, which is really good. But other than that, it’s really a partnership. The artist carries a lot of the weight, and Greenleaf pitches in with their network of listeners and people who know that label as being something you can count on to bring interesting, creative and fresh projects.
At BA we’re very interested in sharing the financial realities of jazz with people, so can you talk a little bit about how a project like this comes together, financially and logistically, and more or less what the budget was?
That’s one of the most important things about the project, and one of the things that helps in the making of a product anyway. Roell Smidt and Mike Reed, the producers, once they contacted me and Onye, they presented the idea to the city of Chicago, which used to have a series, which is now cancelled, called Made in Chicago World Class Jazz. And so what they would do is, they would commission several artists throughout the summer to compose some kind of new work. Basically, do whatever you wanted to do. So they had people do things with film, and people do things with small chamber ensembles, and jazz, and all kinds of things. So they approached the city, and Roell wrote the proposal, and they got approved. So that was a big part of it. Like, I received a certain amount of money to put a band together, to rehearse a band, and to write the piece. Same thing with Onye. She received a certain amount of money and was able to hire a core group of dancers as well as some student dancers because at the time she was the chair of the dance program over at Columbia College, but now she’s the new dean over there. And also she got some extra funding from Columbia, to help out with extra costs.
So that grant, which was a good amount of money, allowed for the piece to be written and rehearsed well, and also Links Hall and Constellation, they put in more money to help pay for rehearsal costs, and they donated time at Constellation for rehearsal. We needed space to do dress rehearsals and stuff like that, and everybody pitched in on that end, and we were able to capture those moments well. We recorded live at Constellation, and we also went into the studio and recorded, and the live gig turned out to be the best. So it helped that we didn’t have to—’cause the life of a commission, I find, cause I’ve done quite a few commissions—is that you get commissioned, you write the piece, you perform it and then it’s done. And documenting it again is a whole other set of costs. So fortunately we captured it and were able to come up with a nice final project, which we pitched to Greenleaf. And like I said, they covered the production of the CDs, which isn’t the biggest expense—the biggest expense, I would say, is publicity, which I covered. And then, of course, you have the cost of doing release shows.
We’ve done three concerts with the dancers here in Chicago, June first through June third, at Constellation. So again, we have Links Hall allowing us to use the space and probably investing some of their funds to be able to pay everybody an OK wage for doing three shows in a row and getting a dress rehearsal. So once again, it’s like a perfect storm. A commission happens, we capture the product, then you have some people like Mike Reed and Constellation and Roell Smidt and Links Hall, who believe in this project so well and have given so much support—that’s really the only way something of this size could happen again and again. We hope to perform it as much as we can, but we know what we have to do to put the show on, because it’s so many people.