Re-visiting the Mingus Big Band at Jazz Standard

Three years ago, when I last reviewed the Mingus Big Band, I began by saying, “The Mingus Big Band is one of the most vibrant, personable, talented ensembles I’ve heard in ages”. Tonight’s Mingus Big Band was still as vibrant and engaging as it was then, with an almost entirely different ensemble of musicians. Boris Kozlov, who has played bass with the band on each visit, since 2005, when I first began writing about the group, was host, introducing musicians and music. Once again, the fifteen-piece (up from fourteen, on last visit) band sat in layered levels. Brass and microphones, positioned everywhere, were, once again, “a metaphor for this sometimes rambunctious, sometimes tranquil, sometimes unruly, sometimes harmonious, and always engaging concert experience”. Sue Mingus, Charles Mingus’ widow, remains its overseer and manager, and she’s obviously doing a fantastic job. In fact, they won a Grammy in 2011 for their album, Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard, as the “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.”

I stayed for both sets tonight, enjoying a light supper in between. The first piece, Mingus’ “Gunslinging Bird”, included Tatum Greenblatt’s trumpet solo swinging wild. Tommy Campbell on drums, Helen Sung on piano, and Boris Kozlov on bass kept the rhythms pumped and percussive. Then Ms. Sung kicked it up a notch, before the full band exploded with propulsion. A soaring sax solo was followed by tantalizing trombones. The next piece was “Pinky”, with a highlighted tenor sax and Ms. Sung at the keyboard. Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” opened with an exotic bass string theme, then Douglas Yates’ warbling sax trills. Lew Soloff was spotlighted on trumpet, as was Tommy Campbell on drums.

“Oh Lord Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me” was spoken and sung by trombonist, Ku-umba Frank Lacy. Bluesy refrains were picked up on Greenblatt’s trumpet and on an intriguing piano-bass melody, filling the club with a New Orleans mood. Dave Taylor’s bristling trombone brought forth the full big band, infused with echoing phrases and Lacy’s vocals. Mingus’ “Tensions” brought out Coleman Hughes on rippling trombone, then Campbell’s rip-roaring to whispering, muffled drums, a study in nuanced volume. The band charged ahead like a caravan, turning it all over to Ronnie Cuber on baritone saxophone. “So Long Eric”, a tribute to Eric Dolphy, featured Douglas Yates on tenor sax and Greg Gisbert on trumpet. Kozlov carried the interlocking bass theme. A guest pianist, Julius Rodriguez, young and talented, sat in for this piece. A band member stood, arm up, to shift momentum toward the finale.

“Tijuana Gift Shop” was replete with lots of clavé rhythm, with the band clapping to set the tempo. Two trumpets opened, with Greenblatt on an expansive, electric solo. Brassy trills went up and down the scale. The full big band kept the Latin-infused beat through the finale. Ronnie Cuber and Helen Sung, back on piano, took the theme to its exotic conclusion. “Sweet Sucker Dance” (lyrics and words by Joni Mitchell) featured Wayne Escoffery on poignant sax solo, before the full band took merging themes, silently pausing for the tenor sax. Soloff on trumpet and Taylor on trombone had rousing solo turns. It was noted by Boris Kozlov that Charles Mingus was the first African-American composer whose entire work was purchased by the Library of Congress (1993). For “Don’t Let It Happen Here”, Lacy spoke the inspiring, requisite vocals. Tonight, with all the recent catastrophes in the news, a missing plane, a Crimean invasion, and more, the Jazz Standard crowd leaned in. Kudos to the Mingus Big Band, and kudos to Sue Mingus for keeping the Mingus repertoire so active and extraordinary.

– Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower