Mingus Big Band roaring again at Ronnie’s

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Legacy, certainly in an Olympics-conscious world, has become something of an overstated principle. Yet ensembles such as the Mingus Big Band and, for that matter, the Sun Ra Arkestra, who were also at Ronnie’s back in August, are as important to the jazz world as any purpose-built stadium that survives a glorious summer of sport and genuinely serves the community thereafter. Rather than a static white elephant, the 14-piece ensemble that plays the music of Charles Mingus is a big beast of an orchestra that roars mightily but knows how to seductively purr when revealing the wry sensitivity that was also an integral part of the great bassist-pianist-composer’s psyche.  

His small groups always sounded like big bands such was the intricacy and hyperactivity of both rhythm and horn sections, so the orchestra assembled tonight, with its array of outstanding soloists such as baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, trombonist Conrad Herwig, trumpeter Lew Soloff, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffrey and pianist David Kikoski, renders the epic, baroque character of Mingus’ aesthetic all the more striking. While much is made of his ability to draw on all of the major schools in jazz history, from swing to bebop to Latin to avant-garde, Mingus took a firm root in gospel and the blues and added branch upon branch of harmonic and rhythmic finesse, so much so that the bulk of his songbook is like a prayer meeting in which the minister’s sermon, in its lengthy undulations and ecstatic invocations, acts as complex verse and chorus.

Rousing, galvanising titles such as ‘Invisible Lady’, ‘The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife (Are Some Jiveass Slippers)’ and ‘Pinkie‘ make that clear in no uncertain terms while ‘Ysabel’s Table Dance’, with its startling strummed flamenco chords from bassist Michael Richmond, also shows how Mingus extrapolated Jellyroll Morton’s famous ’Spanish tinge’ and made it his own. Good as those moments are, the highpoint of the evening is the sterling vocal performance of trumpeter Philip Harper, who swoons his way Louis-like through ‘Baby, Take A Chance With Me’ and ‘Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On Me’, a piece in which, like a trusty preacher, he calls on heaven to save us from the hell of our own making.


– Kevin Le Gendre

– Photo courtesy Carl Hyde www.hydeandhyde-photography.com