Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady is one of the most lauded records in jazz history – its lush orchestration, its breadth of territory, its uncompromising integrity and vision all contribute to its enduring allure. Recorded in 1963 with an 11 piece band, the 39 minute, continuous composition was described by Mingus as “ethnic folk-dance music”, as it was originally scored and conceived as a six-part ballet.
In 2014, Roell Schmidt–executive director of the Chicago performing arts center Link’s Hall–heard Black Saint and was floored. Schmidt quickly went to Chicago jazz impresario Mike Reed about the possibility of staging something at Link’s Hall with Mingus’ music and dancers, as the composer had envisioned. Reed’s instincts led him immediately to contact his trusted collaborator of over 13 years, alto saxophonist and composer Greg Ward. Reed asked Ward simply to listen to The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, a work he had never heard before.
Upon first listen, Ward’s mind began racing – he was enraptured by Mingus’ varied palette of colors, textures and the masterful orchestration that pervades the record. Ward excitedly got back in touch with Reed, who told him that Schmidt had chosen choreographer Onye Ozuzu to collaborate with Ward on this performance’s realization. The piece was pitched by Schmidt and Reed to Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Made In Chicago: World Class Jazz Series, in the summer of 2015. The proposal was accepted and the wheels were set in motion for the project that would eventually become Touch My Beloved’s Thought, which had its premiere on August 13, 2015.
Since his first time writing for dancers 10 years before, Ward’s imagination and his insatiable appetite has continued to grow – in the 10 intervening years, he’s scored music for films, choirs, orchestras and many multi-media works. He notes, “I’ve found that a lot of really beautiful things can come out of me placing myself in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations.”
Before Ward and Ozuzu began this work they faced a daunting decision: would they do a transcription of The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady, an arrangement of it, or do something completely original? They ultimately decided that the most fitting way to pay tribute to Mingus was to craft an original work which encompassed much of The Black Saint but seen through their modern lens and sensibility.
Ward notes, “I began to dig through Mingus’ composition looking for the elements that stuck out or that were hidden. A lot of big ideas for my composition came from very fleeting moments from his work, which may have gone unnoticed. I kept questioning myself, ‘How would this idea sound today?’ and ‘How would I interpret that sound or feeling?’.” For instance, Ward’s composition “With All Your Sorrow Sing A Song of Jubilance” was taken from a quick piano run that Mingus played and expanded into a whole composition, while “The Menacing Lean” was taken from a fleeting, 4 second passage in Mingus’ trombones which Ward’s ear latched onto; and “Round 3” was inspired by a Major 7th voicing that Mingus used in the low voices during The Black Saint, yet completely re-imagined in a modern context, replete with a hip-hop beat. Touch My Beloved’s Thought’s opener “Daybreak” takes colors, feelings and even its 6/8 tempo from Mingus’ opener, yet borrows other aspects from other forgotten corners of Mingus’ piece. Ward, again like Mingus, interspersed his suite with solo interludes – the piano solo feature appropriately titled “Singular Serenade”; the militaristic trombone battle of “Smash, Push, Pull, Crash” which had dancers holding each other back in a striking visual; and “Grit” which Ward says shows “[his] interpretation of Mingus’ love and interpretation of Duke Ellington’s music.”
Ward and Ozuzu quickly began their intense collaboration by meeting for one week stretches, every month, for 6 months. When not together, Ozuzu would send Ward videos of her improvised dancing to Mingus’ music, which began to reveal the palette that Ward had at its disposal.
For his part, Ward put together a 10 piece band, and like Mingus comprised of some of his longest-standing collaborators and top-shelf Chicago musicians: Tim Haldeman (tenor saxophone), Keefe Jackson (baritone and tenor saxophones), Russ Johnson (trumpet), Ben LaMar (cornet), Norman Palm (trombone), Christopher Davis (bass trombone), Jason Roebke (bass), Dennis Luxion (piano), Marcus Evans (drums). Ward chose them all for their unique voices which he utilized while crafting the piece and who brought it to life.
With Mike Reed’s insistence, Ward knew right before the performance that they were going to make a record of this project. They recorded the live show at Constellation Chicago, and went into the studio the following day. Yet the immediacy of feeling from the live show won out and it is what you hear on the record. Reed and Ward shopped Touch My Beloved’s Thought, around to many labels, but trumpeter Dave Douglas was incredibly enthusiastic about it being released on his imprint Greenleaf Music.
Ward’s striking synthesis of tradition and reverence for Mingus’ work, infused with his thoroughly modern and unique sensibilities give Touch My Beloved’s Thought a wonderment and power that is undeniable.