While I've liked Hal Willner's previous productions, this one seems somehow lacking to me. It just doesn't seem to capture the spirit of Mingus. It's set me thinking about Mingus' music and what it means to me. One of the essential elements of Mingus, to me, is an emotional explosiveness, expressing uncontained joy on "Better Git It In Your Soul" or fury on "Fables of Faubus". The famous Mingus/Dolphy "argument" on "What Love". The raucous gospel of "Ecclusiastics". The performances here, by contrast, seem to concentrate on the moody side of Mingus and lack that volatility. Of all the Mingus albums I know, this tribute reminds me most of "Let My Children Hear Music", both in terms of superficial similarities (use of unusual instruments -- in this case, Harry Partch's unconventionally tuned instruments -- and prerecorded "samples" and spoken vocals) and on a more emotional level. But "Children" isn't one of my favorite Mingus albums; I prefer "Mingus Ah Um" or "Oh Yeah" or the Candid recordings.
This album is not without its redeeming moments, to be sure: Bernard Fowler does a nice rendition of "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me" (one of Mingus' most straightforward blues pieces, so not too tricky), and Diamanda Galas' vocals on "Eclipse" have some of that explosive quality. The avant-stringband version of "Open Letter to Duke" is fun, and I enjoy "Work Song" with Don Byron on clarinet. Elvis Costello's rendition of "Weird Nightmare" has very little Mingus in it, to my ears, but it's a very nice piece of Costello work. But I expect an album like this to show the important qualities of Mingus' work, and I don't think it does that. It's not that this is a bad album -- just that it's a bad tribute album.