Greg Ward – Touch My Beloved’s Thought (2016)

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The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was Charles Mingus’ masterwork of jazz orchestration, the 1963 summit of Mingus’ massive artistry. Just to replicate that could be a task but Chicago alto saxophonist Greg Ward went a step further and developed his own “ethnic folk-dance music” inspired by the fertile mind of Mingus.

Ward’s Touch My Beloved’s Thought (July 8, 2016, Greenleaf Music) is modern creative jazz that was conducted one August evening in Chicago commissioned in tribute to Mingus’ towering achievement. Recorded live at Constellation Chicago and accompanied by a ballet performance choreographed to go with the music, Ward had to first undertake the heady work of constructing a long-form jazz symphony and assemble a ten-piece orchestra comprised of a few of the town’s best jazz cats to execute it.

He did this having not heard The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady before being approached to help develop a music/dance performance based on this music. Ward ultimately chose the more difficult but more rewarding route by writing original music instead of transcribing or rearranging Mingus’ score.

The Black Saint was a recent revelation to the principal movers behind this project; not so much to yours truly but it’s been a while since I’ve last dove into it so a revisit was in order before absorbing Ward’s own major work. Juxtaposing the two provides some helpful context in understanding how the older piece informed the newer and how Ward’s own character shaped his project.

Touch My Beloved’s Thought is not The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, The Sequel. That’s probably because Ward is an experienced hand at composing major scores. For ten years, he’s been doing this for choirs, orchestras, films, multi-media…you name it. He’s already established his composition style and it varies from Mingus’s; the younger composer is a product of the early 21st century, not the mid-19th century, and that shows up in the modern figures prevalent in “Daybreak,” and much of “Gather Round, The Revolution Is At Hand.” “Round 3” has sophisticated weaving of melody and counter melody while the rhythm section grooves, and then a catchy bridge that provides a platform for a Tim Haldeman tenor sax solo. Those are attributes heard in Ward’s earlier recordings.

All the same, Ward picked up a lot of cues from the iconic bassist; Mingus’ flair for well-placed dramatics appears on “The Menacing Lean” in which the horns pop in with blasts and smears at first, and grows in presence until we have the organized chaos: calamity doesn’t ensue much, but it always seems to be right around the corner (and right in our laps for the free-form trombone fury or the brief “Smash, Push, Pull, Crash”). And the experimental Mingus was always a bebop guy at heart; likewise, “Grit” commences with a horn chart that teases familiar bop themes.

None of this is accidental; Ward carefully studied Mingus recordings and picked up fleeting or subtle moments in his music, then transferred them into a present-day setting. For instance, the kernel from “The Menacing Lean” came wholly from a four-second Mingus trombone passage. Other small shards like that were lifted as a way to graft a bit of The Black Saint‘s DNA toward the birthing of a wholly different being.

Ward’s direct nod to the bass genius Mingus happens with “Dialogue of the Black Saint,” where Jason Roebke’s bass solo is placed right at the beginning and leads right into a groove punctuated by hard horn punches and then an Ellingtonian plunged trombone solo.

Finally, “Gather Round, The Revolution Is At Hand” begins on a steady tone and not being particularly tumultuous, initially not leaving the impression of being the album-ending, twelve minute grand finale. But Ward steadily sends the composition on an upward arc, and the orchestral fury of Mingus is unleashed in the final minute.

In sports they often say “to be the best, you have to beat the best.” In art, it might be more applicable to state that “to be the best, you have to be inspired by the best.” The ever-curious, ever-expansive Greg Ward has a hard thirst for seeking out new sources of inspiration, which keeps him scaling new heights. Fittingly, Touch My Beloved’s Thought is his own artistic summit. For now, at least.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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