Musicians: The Mingus Big Band
Leader: Boris Kozlov
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It was a real coup for Opera North to get the Mingus Big Band for its only date outside London before a week at Ronnie Scott’s Club. One of the most enduring and exciting of “legacy” bands gave the sell-out audience a joyous and exhilarating two hours of jazz.
Bassist/composer Charles Mingus died in 1979, but it was not until 1991 that his widow, Sue Mingus, put together a 14-piece band – the sort of big band he himself had always wanted – to play his music. Apart from tours, the band plays every Monday at the Jazz Standard in New York City.
Under the inspired leadership of bassist Boris Kozlov, the Mingus Big Band has solved the usual problems of “legacy” bands: authenticity and continuity versus originality and freshness, for example. The performance at Leeds was bursting with youthful energy, but 37 years after his death the Mingus connection was still there, with baritone saxist Ronnie Cuber and bass trombonist Earl McIntyre having played with the great man. The band stuck to material from the Mingus stable, but played some sort of new music, worked up from Mingus’ sketches.
Essentially, the Mingus Big Band is made up of outstanding soloists. In the course of the Howard Assembly Room concert even Kevin Holbrough, the Leeds trombonist brought in as emergency cover for a musician caught in the New York snow, got his opportunity – and took it well. Of all unlikely instruments the final Better Get it in Your Soul climaxed on a riotous tuba solo, McIntyre having switched from bass trombone.
Lead alto player Brandon Wright not only led the section superblybut brought out the most lyrical solos of the evening on a medley of two Mingus ballads, Diane and Alice’s Wonderland. Ronnie Cuber’s powerfully rhythmic baritone sax began and ended the concert with dynamic solos as well as underpinning the big band sound with McIntyre’s bass trombone. Of two superb tenor sax soloists, Wayne Escoffery excelled in a heartfelt and endlessly inventive tribute to Lester Young on Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.
The band’s loose ensemble sound belied the precision with which they negotiated the changes of tempo and rhythm in Mingus’ extended compositions, even extending into a Third Stream composition in the form of a mini-piano concerto – it still swung, though! An innovator in music, Mingus was also a political activist, his Fables of Faubus, directed at segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, ending with mockingly half-valved high notes from trumpeter Philip Harper.
From the opening bass and drums fragments of sound to the final calming encore, the concert was the best proof yet that the experimental can still be fun, with the band members clearly sharing the audience’s joy in some marvellous music.
Runs until 30 January 2016 at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London | Image:Tom Arber