Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia)
Various Artists

By Bob Bahr

Many album titles are misleading. Not this one.

The weird nightmare that was jazz bassist Charles Mingus' life is reflected powerfully here by the talented producer Hal Willner and an extremely diverse cast of musicians, including Keith Richards, Vernon Reid, Chuck D, Bill Frisell, Elvis Costello, Robbie Robertson, and Leonard Cohen. In addition to the adventurous interpretations of the late musician's compositions, Mingus' intense, covertly violent poetry is read over his music on six cuts, with good effect.

Repeated listenings are warranted by the complex recasting of Mingus classics like "Open Letter to Duke" (with banjo by Tony Trischka, mandolin by Barry Mitterhoff, and harmonica by Howard Levy), "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me" (guitar by Keith Richards, drums by Charlie Watts, piano by Chuck Leavell, sax by Bobby Keyes and vocals from Bernard Fowler), and several other compositions that are illuminated and bent by musicians playing the instruments of avant garde composer Harry Partch. Partch's creations; with names like cloud chamber bowls, marimba eroica, surrogate kithara and a modified reed pump organ called the Chromelodeon II; push a great part of the way toward giving this recording a dream-like feel. In the liner notes, Mingus' widow Sue Mingus says she thinks her husband would have approved of this interpretive stretching; fans of the iconoclastic jazz man will undoubtedly agree.

Willner has named Mingus' many musical and personal sources and chased them down by tapping some of the best practitioners of each field. Mingus' rooting in blues and gospel form a bridge to the Rolling Stones band. His black pride and restlessness is explosively probed by Chuck D, who, despite his critical acclaim, is still not fully appreciated as a vocalist. He should be after his aggressive, moving reading of the story "The Fire at the Coconut Grove" over the song "Gunslinging Bird or If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats."

Mingus' intriguing mix of joy and tortured sadness is vividly depicted in Costello's vocals on the title track. Art Baron is a perfect representative of Mingus' jazz foundations, having played trombone with Duke Ellington and the Mingus Dynasty band. And bassist Greg Cohen wisely mounts no attempt to play like Mingus, yet seemingly captures the spirit demanded by the project.

Unconventional instrumentation is the shared element on Weird Nightmare,most notably the persistent presence of the electric guitar. Frisell, a distinctive voice on the guitar, is everywhere, eerily playing deep in the mix or playing gentle solos in the front. Gary Lucas contributes additional guitar work in an equally unconventional manner, whether he is merely strumming a National steel guitar or summoning weirdness from an electric. Coupling modern music's obsession with the electric guitar with the foreign sound of Partch's instruments gives the tribute a very contemporary context.

Mingus' music has never been easily accessible, and Willners' Wim Wenders-like nightmarescape closes the door on more of the listening public. Fans of Willner's other projects, like the Disney composition Stay Awakeand the Thelonious Monk project called That's the Way I Feel Now, will eat up Willner's latest blast at musical convention. Mingus fans with minds as open as that of their hero will dig it as well. The rest had better stay away; their reaction will at best be no better than what one of Mingus' psychiatrists gave upon hearing one of Mingus' typically earthy and vivid poems: "Well, Charles, it certainly is a very personal expression."