I Pledge Allegiance To The Flag – The White Flag
To listen to the compositions of Charles Mingus is to hear aspects of classical, avant-garde, blues, gospel, poetry and soul all within the confines of jazz. Mingus pushed everything through that spectre, viewed everything through that lens. Maybe he was the great 20th Century composer, certainly one of the most challenging, creative and arresting forces in music.
So, it’s a tall order to cover him in tribute. I walked out from the Mingus Big Band, an ensemble dedicated to presenting only his works and all over the world. And I just thought ho-hum. Because there’s an intensity in his recordings – a full and troubled soul and a density of grit that no one else could ever reach.
So I’m saying that as prefacing acknowledgment that covering Mingus across a whole album is largely a fool’s errand. And yet, I am loving what Stephanie Nilles does here on an album of solo piano covers.
The album’s full title is Fiona Apple-esque but comes directly from Mingus: “i pledge allegiance to the flag – the white flag. i pledge allegiance to the flag of america. when they say ‘black’ or ‘negro’ it means you are not an american. i pledge allegiance to your flag. not that i have to, but just for the hell of it i pledge allegiance. i pledge allegiance to the flag of the united states of america – the white flag – with no stripes, no stars. it is a prestige badge worn by a profitable minority. yeah, i pledge allegiance to the united states of america. i pledge allegiance to see that someday they will live up to their own promises to the victims that they call citizens. not just the black ghettos, but the white ghettos, and the japanese ghettos, the chinese ghettos – all the ghettos in the world. oh i pledge allegiance alright. i could pledge a-whole-lotta-legiance”
Nilles has journeyed through classical, pop and jazz piano – some barrelhouse and barstool blues slides in to her journey too. And here she takes some of Mingus’ biggest, best, most challenging and sublimely beautiful pieces for a stroll. Recorded in late 2019 it is a brand new 2021 release.
The album begins with Fables of Faubus, and Nilles sings as well as plays, she takes us into a fantasyland musical of gospel and western madness. This album can’t always be easy listening, you should never expect that from a Mingus-related project of course, but there are moments where the piano eases your mind. The tinkling of East Coasting, the deep blues of Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb On Me and the deep-cut classical skill of O.P. (a transcribed piano solo that I believe was left unreleased in Mingus’ lifetime).
Of course Goodbye Pork Pie Hat creeps out from under the keys in a way similar to ‘Round Midnight.
But there’s always this tension in Mingus’ music so Devil Woman has Nilles singing again and it’s a horror-show blues, dark night of the soul evolving out from the piano keys.
So this won’t be for everyone, and is surely only intended as a gateway to (or back to) Mingus. But I am loving it as its own thing – a tribute of course; political statement too (again, as was almost always the case with Charles Mingus’ music) but also you can just sit and appreciate the dexterity of Nilles’ pianio playing (Pithecanthropus Erectus) and the deep blues that motivated Mingus to make such searing, towering music.