Concert Review: The Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard, NYC 7/27/09
Every great city has its cosmopolitan traditions, but you can go to Paris or London and find something that equates to Shakespeare in the Park or a picnic at the Cloisters. Only New York has Mingus Mondays. No disrespect to the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra or gonzo gospel pianist Rev. Vince Anderson, both of whose weekly Monday shows are rightfully the stuff of legend, but the weekly Monday Mingus show at the Jazz Standard is New York’s most transcendent weekly residency. It’s probably the best in the entire world.
Under the inspired stewardship of the great composer’s widow Sue Mingus, three ensembles alternate from week to week: Mingus Dynasty, the original seven-piece repertory unit; the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra and the mighty Mingus Big Band, who happened to be on the bill Monday night. To play Mingus, you have to have great chops but you also have to have real fire in the belly. Under the direction of bassist Boris Kozlov, the group treated what appeared to be a sold-out house to a passionate, frequently ecstatic performance, which wasn’t particularly surprising considering what a treat it must be to play this stuff. It could be argued that there has been no composer in any style of music who has written with such fearlessness, ferocity or consistently counterintuitive creativity since Mingus’ sadly early demise in 1979. Even when the band had to sight-read a piece, in this case a darkly swaying number doing double duty as workingman’s lament (an update on Stormy Monday) and somber meditation on race from Mingus’ 1965 collaboration with Langston Hughes, they dug in and gave it plenty of gravitas.
Otherwise, the show was a spirited romp through Mingus both popular and obscure. Beyond the noir atmospherics, the swing and the stomp, perhaps the most fascinating thing about Mingus’ work is how he’d leap from genre to genre, from mood to mood, sometimes in the space of a few bars. Sometimes that makes for a jarring segue, but the effect is intentional – it keeps both the band and the audience completely tuned in. #29, an early 70s composition stuck a growling, marvelously murky low-register passage in the midst of a bustling, bluesy swing tune that gave tenor player Scott Robinson (who absolutely slayed earlier this month on bass sax with Musette Explosion) a chance to go jaggedly skyward, followed by alto player Mark Ross who took off in a bubblier, more playful direction.
Invisible Lady featured Elvis Costello lyrics sung by trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, pulling out every ounce of sly double entendre when it came to the phrase about the hourglass as the band wove in and out of a warped latin vamp. A 1959 outtake, GG Train, was exactly the opposite of that other train with a similar name that never arrives, galloping down the track but taking the time to stop for some playful call-and-response between piano and drums and a completely macabre piano breakdown before picking up again with a blazing trumpet solo. They closed with the John Stubblefield arrangement of the classic Song with Orange, a noir blues that morphs into a boogie and then ends surprisingly on a quizzical note just thisclose to unrestrained wrath.
And a word about the venue: if you remember the Mingus Orchestra’s long-running residency at Fez back in the 90s, you’ll also remember how that club had delusions of grandeur but was really a dump, and an overpriced one at that. The Jazz Standard, by comparison has actual grandeur, yet the vibe is downtown and casual. And they have NYC’s best mac-and-cheese – it’s pricy ($8 as of this writing, 7/09) but it’s the gustatory equivalent of the lushest, richest Gil Evans arrangement you can imagine.