Mingus Big Band May 8, 2009
By Glen Creason
It is fitting that the legacy of the complex and powerful Charles Mingus lives on in a fourteen piece band from New York City called the Mingus Big Band. Mingus, one of the most passionate and influential jazz artists of all time never swayed from his strong beliefs and most certainly took Jazz to new places in his relatively short life. While he died before he reached sixty years of age he left a pretty fair discography including the landmark albums "Mingus Ah Um" and "Blues & Roots" from which the Big Band took all but one song for their Friday night Cerritos appearance. While some might suggest Mingus was the founder of the free jazz movement that is a fork in the road many don’t take. This show danced up to the edge of such experimentation but always returned to more solid ground even if the sound was ricocheting all over the musical solar system. Mingus believed in improvisation as part of the whole and this Big Band does that to perfection.
The Mingus Big Band plays every Monday evening in NYC but occasionally tours and this was a rather rare opportunity for aficionados to drink the nectar of Mingus’ marvelous music. This fourteen member ensemble is as solid as a rock, member by member excellent together and alone. They play the Mingus way, handing over solos to everyone in the group that builds up the excitement and leads to paths unknown and enlightening. There are five saxophones, three trombones, three trumpets, a piano, drums and of course, a very busy bass in this group. They all get a chance to stand up and show their chops and even the bandleader changes in this egalitarian setup from bassist Boris Koslov to Craig Handy to Frank Lacy . The brilliant thing about the music is that nothing is predictable and the notes just rush by like rafts in a briskly moving stream, sometimes heading for a waterfall and a torrent of sound played from different angles but forming a deep pool of Jazz in the conclusion. They played “Gun Slinging Bird” with Saxes appropriately dominating, beginning with young Seamus Blake and giving time to Vincent Herring, Abraham Burton and Craig Handy. “Fables of Faubus” was typical of Mingus’ outspoken civil rights expressions with vocal and fiery trombone solo by the amazing Ku-Umba Frank Lacy. There was a relatively mellow period with ballads “Diane,” and “Alice in Wonderland” spiced by great trumpet work from Alex Sipiagan and the muted and swinging “Open Letter to Duke” that allowed the fantastic David Kikoski room to pay his own Ellington homage with the piano. There was a premier of a moody “Put Me In the Dungeon” along with one of the nights high points in Baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian’s “Moanin’” that really left folks staring in amazement. The first half was a concert in itself and only space keeps me from raving about the other soloists who were all top drawer. Yet the second half was even stronger with the Saxophone madness of “Bird Calls” once again colored by Kikoski’s piano and the full throttle voyage of the “Double G Train” that was full of improvisational steam. Movement 18 from the esoteric “Epitaph” was quite avant guard and despite it taking you way out there, once you got there you liked it. “Tensions” was about as good as you can get with the musicians playing off each other and getting better and better like a good team that understands how to share the ball. Lastly the dessert of this Jazz feast was “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” which was a sad farewell for the not big enough crowd that certainly made plenty of noise for the music they love.