Concert Review: The Mingus Orchestra/Mingus Big Band at Damrosch Park, NYC 8/26/07
Before the show started, there was a bag lady sitting on the aisle opposite the sound board embroiled in a heated debate with an unseen opponent. Yes, she had been at the Woodstock Hotel and had a torn, greyed scrap of paper to prove it. Slowly, she was surrounded by tourists, and ended up sleeping through most of the show. Apparently whatever hallucination had been giving her a hard time didn’t like Mingus. Or also fell asleep.
Augmenting the musicians onstage was a group of special guests: an energetic chorus of tree frogs. The peepers were into it tonight, and made themselves known with gusto whenever the music got quiet. However, they had no interest in keeping time with the arrangements. There was also a light on the top floor of the highrise building south of the park that kept going on and off, in perfect time, throughout the show. Perhaps Mingus himself was on hand to give a listen.
Maybe so, because this was arguably the best show we’ve seen this year, right up there with the Avengers at Bowery Ballroom, Big Lazy at Luna and Paula Carino at the Parkside. Composer/bassist Charles Mingus (1922-79) wrote in several different idioms, but his best work is a blend of jazz, classical and horror movie soundtrack. It’s difficult, richly composed, deeply troubled music. Heavy stuff, not for the faint of heart. They played a lot of that tonight along with some more lighthearted fare, a brave thing to do considering that this was a free outdoor show (part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival) which mysteriously draws a mostly neighborhood crowd along with a scattering of tourists. Perhaps the group’s ubiquity on the concert circuit had something to do with it (the Big Band had a Thursday residency at Fez for ages back in the 90s), or, that for the crowd who can actually afford to see them in clubs, money is no object. Whatever the case, there were still a lot of empty seats which grew as the night went on: clearly, the dark side of Mingus is not for everyone.
The Orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller and ironically smaller than the Big Band with only 10 players, opened with a couple of breezily, eerily swinging numbers that evoked something akin to Miles Davis doing Gil Evans arrangements, only better (hubris, I know). Mingus was an angry man, and these tunes had a smirk, as if to say, I just picked your pocket for $20 and now I’m taking a cab down to Toots Shor’s to spend it. Both the Orchestra and Big Band are repertory units, they know this material inside out and mined the melodies for every deliciously evil nuance. Then they did Half-Mast Inhibition, which Mingus composed at age 17. A lot of his material is narrative: this one’s not about impotence, but instead Mingus’ reluctance to meditate his way off the face of the earth (at the time, he thought he could). It’s a deliberately ostentatious, rigorously knotty piece that goes through all sorts of permutations. Hardly his best composition, but the band emphasized the unexpected squeals, squalls and rhythmic innovations that would become trademarks of his later work.
Mingus’s widow Sue, who introduced both sets told the audience that “Against all common wisdom and tradition…normally you open with a swinging, uptempo beat,” the 14-piece Mingus Big Band (minus guitar and bass clarinet, plus more horns) was going to begin the second half of the program with The Children’s Hour of Dream from his three-hour masterwork, Epitaph. This is no ordinary dream, it’s a fullscale nightmare complete with scary figures in the shadows, a chase scene and a shootout, all jumpy chromatic runs and scary trills from every instrument including the piano. They then segued into a jaunty, pretty generic jump blues written as a celebration of the birth of bassist Oscar Pettiford’s new baby boy, a suitable vehicle for the band members to dazzle with their chops. Ryan Kisor on trumpet, Wayne Oscoffery on tenor and Ku-umba Frank Lacy on trombone all contributed suitably ebullient solos. They followed with the murky, exasperated Noon, Night, one of Mingus’ most famous songs. The rest of the show was upbeat material, including Pinky Please Don’t Come Back to the Moon (Mingus LOVED odd titles) and the deliriously passionate Freedom, Mingus’ acerbic, vitriolic lyrics rapped by the trombonist. A Civil Rights-era anthem, it ends caustically: freedom for you, not me. Bassist Boris Kozlov directed the ensemble from behind Mingus’ own lionshead bass. What a treat it must be to play this music and in particular Mingus’ basslines on the composer’s instrument. At the end of the show, the band went through a series of false endings, an appropriate way to wind up this gorgeously haunting, surprise-filled evening.