Leader: Boris Koslov
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Opera North has recently announced plans for a major new redevelopment of the Grand Theatre area. This has to be welcome, but already the company goes well beyond the remit of a conventional opera company in many ways, notably the Kirklees Concert Season and the expertly curated, and highly varied, programme in the Howard.
So it’s nothing out of the ordinary to find the Grand housing simultaneously the last night before touring of the company’s excellent Tosca and a sell-out performance in the Howard by the Mingus Big Band from New York.
Bassist/composer Charles Mingus, who died in 1979, was one of the more indefinable figures in jazz: his music is accessible, but not always assessable. The hard bop style underlies much of his music of the 1950s and 1960s, plus blues and gospel, and later in his career he embraced Third Stream writing, blending classical structure and collective improvisation – and, listening to the Mingus Big Band, it’s impossible not to feel the influence also of Duke Ellington in the gratifying harmonies and loosely loping section work of some passages. And Mingus had briefly served his time with the Duke, more briefly than planned after a contretemps involving valve trombonist Juan Tizol and a very large knife.
The 14-piece Big Band, assembled by Mingus’ widow Sue, plays weekly dates in New York with a floating population of top musicians – and the band’s appearance in Leeds, en route to London’s Ronnie Scott’s Club, was a joyous experience. A coruscating version of Jump Monk threw off jet lag and introduced us to the remarkable talents of pianist Helen Sung. She, in the course of the evening, could remind us of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, exhibit a classically trained delicacy of touch, switch the mood of a piece in a moment and run through mazy two-handed improvisations.
Bassist/leader Boris Koslov, in his urbanely informative introductions, hinted at the only possible flaw in a superb concert: the band finds it hard to limit itself to the two 40-minute sets required by the Howard. So we had a Mingus programme without Fables of Faubus and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. The earlier compositions made few appearances, though consummate lead alto Brandon Wright excelled in Portrait of Jackie.
However, the band’s choice of more extended pieces was probably justified by the result. The Third Stream number, Sue’s Changes, bristled with changes – to time, tempo and rhythmic patterns – and Ysabel’s Table Dance was the highlight of an evening of highlights, with the insidious rhythms set up by Sung, Koslov and the always outstanding drummer Donald Edwards.
It’s easy to get carried away by the section work of the band, but it’s the balance between section work and individual improvisation that is most exhilarating. It’s a band of soloists, such as the potent tenor sax of Wayne Escoffery, the ultra-smooth slide work of trombonist Conrad Herwig and the meaty baritone sax of Lauren Sevian.
One night only in Leeds – but, after the Ronnie Scott’s dates, the Mingus Big Band can be caught at the Middlesbrough Jazz Festival.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed