Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: The Mingus Big Band – Live at Jazz Standard

Allowing the new live cd by the Mingus Big Band to qualify as a contender for best album of 2010 isn’t really fair – it’s like sponsoring a home run-hitting contest and then inviting the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete. Every Monday night at New York’s Jazz Standard, the three Mingus repertory bands rotate: the original Mingus Odyssey, the ten-piece Mingus Orchestra, and this unit. Broadcast live and recorded by NPR as 2008 turned into 2009, it captures the Mingus Big Band in particularly exuberant form, blazing through a mix of classics and obscurities. Credit drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts for characteristic breakneck intensity – and also for staying within himself as much as he does. The fun the group is having is visceral – but with this material, who wouldn’t? Mingus’ music leans toward the dark and stormy, but here, when the rains come, the band splashes through the puddles undeterred.

The concert kicks off with the joyously slinky blues of Gunslinging Birds, including brief, incisive breaks by Watts and bassist Boris Kozlov (whose regular gig with this unit is a bass player’s dream come true, especially as he gets to play Mingus’ old lions head bass). New Now Know How (which is a question: New, Now – Know How?, according to arranger Sy Johnson) has an infectious, buoyant enthusiasm that transcends its somewhat sly, swinging atmospherics, trumpeters Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton getting the chance to shine and making the gleaming most of it (this is the first recording of the song since the original Charles Mingus version). They follow the vivid, gentle Bill Evans-style ballad Self-Portrait in Three Colors with a lickety-split romp through Birdcalls, Wayne Escoffery’s blissfully extroverted, modally tinged tenor sax giving way to Vincent Herring’s alto while bari player Lauren Sevian, altoist Douglas Yates and tenorist Abraham Burton battle for the edges. Then they segue into Hora Decubitus, which is considerably more roughhewn and belligerently ominous than the version by Elvis Costello (who wrote the lyrics). Trombonist Ku’umba Frank Lacy growls them with a knowing wariness, and his solo comes down quickly out of the clouds.

Cryin’ Blues features a tightly restrained muted trumpet solo from Rampton, a deviously whispery one from Kozlov, and one that’s absolutely majestic from Lacy. And the whole ensemble takes the majesty up as far as it will go once they’ve scurried their way into the middle passages of Open Letter to Duke; Sevian and Escoffery segue it deftly and fluidly into an electric, soaring version of Moanin’, lit up by a long, biting, expressionistic David Kikoski piano solo. Lacy brings Goodbye Pork Pie Hat up out of chaos with a soaring vocal, Escoffery taking the spotlight, magisterial and intense. The band wraps up the night with a strikingly terse version of Song with Orange, waiting til the very end to take it out in a big explosive blaze. As good as the performances here are, the album is also remarkably well-produced, with a welcome absence of whooping and hollering – either the Jazz Standard folks managed to convince the New Year’s Eve revelers to keep it down, or the crowd was so blown away by the music that they didn’t make much noise til it was practically over. Nice to see – the man who was arguably the greatest American composer deserves no less.

Advertisements

July 6, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sue Mingus Talks About the Mingus Big Band’s New CD, Live at Jazz Standard

The Mingus Big Band’s new album Live at Jazz Standard came out a little earlier this year, an exuberant and often exhilarating mix of classics by the pantheonic composer and bassist. The virtuosic repertory unit who play Mondays nights at the club leap from noir tension, to dizzying bop, to genially melodic playfulness with a focus, intensity and camaraderie that does justice to the composer (full review here coming soon). Sue Mingus – Charles Mingus’ widow, executive producer of the album, and tireless advocate and director of the Mingus repertory bands – gave us some characteristically reflective responses to our questions about the album:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: How happy are you with the new cd?

Sue Mingus: It’s great musicians playing great music. We’re pleased.

LCC: Can I ask why the decision was made to record on New Year’s Eve rather than just some random date? Didn’t the prospect of your typical noisy, increasingly drunken New Year’s Eve crowd scare you off? Admittedly, a Mingus audience tends to be somewhat more urbane than your average New Year’s Eve crowd, but didn’t that concern cross your mind?

SM: No, not at all. We like our audiences any night of the week. We chose to play New Year’s Eve since it’s one of the big nights of the year at a club where we have a residency, the Jazz Standard. Also because we were recorded by NPR that night and broadcast nationally. I should add that the main reason for doing this cd was that we were celebrating, fifty years later, three of the seminal jazz albums. 1959 was a banner year for jazz: Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus and a number of others put out some of their most important albums. Entering 2009, we were celebrating, fifty years later, Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Blues and Roots, and Mingus Dynasty. We chose material from those three albums.

LCC: You served as executive producer on this album, so you also selected the songs?

SM: Yes, since it was those albums we were celebrating.

LCC: What is your specific role in relation to the various Mingus repertory bands: this group, the Mingus Big Band and also the Mingus Orchestra and the original unit, Mingus Odyssey?

SM: I started them and I hired them!

LCC: Do you also audition the musicians?

SM: We don’t really need to audition – word gets around! A week ago, last Monday we had a wonderful trumpeter, Avishai Cohen and also Greg Tardy on tenor sax sitting in. New musicians are coming into the band all the time. We have a large pool, over 150 musicians who have learned this music: I have a big spectrum I can draw from each week. I hire the musicians each week and commission the arrangements. A lot of the arrangements are made by the members of the band, for example, last week the band played Meditations for Moses, arranged by bass player Boris Kozlov.

LCC: In addition to the many extraordinary musicians who play Mingus regularly with this unit, there are a couple of ringers on this album, notably Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums – who really takes the energy to the next level – and Randy Brecker on trumpet. How did they come to be part of this recording?

SM: Randy played with us from the start – he was in the original Mingus Dynasty frequently. He’s been playing this music since Charles died and well before: he and Michael Brecker were on the last album with Charles, who as you know, by that time couldn’t play since he was in a wheelchair. Randy’s been a Mingus player for a long time; Jeff plays with us frequently. It wasn’t like outsiders who didn’t know the music.

LCC: It’s been awhile since the Mingus Big Band did an album. When was the last one?

SM: 2007. Live in Tokyo.

LCC: Can we talk a little about the individual tracks? What do you prefer, the Elvis Costello version of Hora Decubitus or the version here, with vocals by Ku-umba Frank Lacy?

SM: I like them both obviously. We love Frank Lacy, he’s a marvelous jazz singer, but we also love Elvis Costello’s version – as you know, he wrote the lyrics.

LCC: Do you have a favorite among the songs on the new album?

SM: It’s hard to choose favorites with Mingus! You want something uptempo? You want something with a classical form, a latin piece, bebop, a beautiful ballad, an extended work? It’s all part of the whole.

LCC: Since the Jazz Standard has one of your bands at the club every Monday, have you thought of doing what the New York Philharmonic Orchestra does, recording pretty much everything and making it available for sale on itunes?

SM (laughs): All it takes is money! We’ve done a dozen albums with the Mingus Big Band, so much of the repertoire has been recorded. But as you know it’s a vast amount of music, and it’s very expensive, to hire the musicians, a studio, the engineers and so forth. It’s a worthy idea, if you know any volunteers for the cause, send them over!

LCC: How do you feel about the fact that a lot of people, maybe the majority of people who hear this album will only hear it in mp3 format rather than at its sonic best on the cd?

SM: I don’t know. People’s listening habits over the years have changed so incredibly much. What do you think?

LCC: I think that the ipod is the new transistor radio. Back in the day there were people who listened to the radio that way and were perfectly satisfied, just as I think that some people are satisfied with the sound of a mp3.

SM: People are used to mp3s now, some people prefer it…

LCC: True. One last question, this is not an easy one, not something we could ever know for sure: what do you think Charles Mingus would have gone on to do, had he lived? When we lost him, in 1979, for example, hip-hop was just around the corner. Do you think he would have embraced that?

SM: It might have been not as challenging as he would have liked. An album he listened to the most the last six months of his life was Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. There’s one whole side that’s cumbia jazz. The other side is the piece Todo Modo, which is “third stream,” as Gunther Schuller called it, classical-jazz fusion. Had he lived, I think that’s the direction he would have pursued. But with Mingus, you never know.

LCC: Any Mingus news that we don’t know about yet that we can report here?

SM: We are having our third Mingus high school competition that will take place in January, our newest project where high school students from around the country come out and compete, February 18-20 at Manhattan School of Music. It’s nice to hear kids playing Mingus with such enthusiasm, and so attentively. This summer, there’s a free concert at Washington Square Park with the Mingus Orchestra on July 27 – and then the band tours!

June 16, 2010 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: The NEC Jazz Faculty All-Stars at the Jazz Standard, NYC 3/24/10

To steal a line out of the Jim Macnie fakebook (he gets a shout-out because he’s on the side of the angels), this was the coolest faculty meeting you could imagine. The New England Conservatory’s jazz faculty distinguish themselves in a lot of ways but most of all because they maintain fulltime live performance schedules. As trumpeter John McNeil, the group’s class clown, sardonically told the sold-out house at the Jazz Standard last night, a NEC gig assures that you always have the means to pursue others! Which might explain why this gig was a clinic, if hardly an academic one. The camaraderie between McNeil – whose compositions dominated the set list – alongside tenor titan George Garzone, pianist Frank Carlberg, bassist Cecil McBee and sub drummer Richie Barshay (Billy Hart couldn’t make it) is comfortable and intiutive, facilitating a clinic in effective listening, trusting one’s bandmates and seeing that trust richly rewarded. It’s not likely that anyone shopping music conservatories was in the crowd, but if they had been, they were either sold or holding out for a bargain that doesn’t exist.

They opened with segueing McNeil numbers, Nanotechnology into Alone Together, mysterioso modal into catchy hook into swing featuring the first of several fast, fluid Garzone solos, McBee going in the opposite direction with lots of space. McNeil got a lot of laughs telling the crowd how he’d named another tune, CJ, after a woman he was pursuing. In retrospect, he should have known that you have to try a little harder than just a blues if you want to impress a woman. Something else that McNeil didn’t know when he wrote it thirty-one years ago, almost to the day: you don’t write the blues before the woman, you write the blues after. But it gave Carlberg the first of many foundations to enigmatically warp the time as he would all night, McBee taking it out quietly, tersely and eerily.

A homage to Piaf, whom McNeil had a crush on as a kid, built from plaintive, insistent piano to gently pulsing, Ray Brown-esque bass, Garzone eventually going major on minor to enhance the somber intensity. Frank Carlberg’s composition Consternation (after the Bird tune A Confirmation) driven by some utterly marvelous Barshay cymbal work, saw the band playfully interjecting themselves into the drum solo. The night’s last number was the best, a Dave Liebman composition that nobody could remember the title to, but they played the hell out of it – a murky modal masterpiece with scurrying rhythm section, icy Carlberg minimalism and more rapidfire Garzone sharpshooting, McNeil avoiding the murk at first but eventually plunging right in as the rhythm section took it all the way up with a stomp that built thisclose to complete ferocity, McBee again leading it out on a quietly moody note. This show was part of NEC Jazz Week in NYC, an allstar series of concerts continuing tomorrow through the big blowout at B.B. King’s on the 27th – the complete schedule is here.

March 25, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Joshua Redman Trio at the Jazz Standard, NYC 10/21/09

Believe it or not, as of this writing (morning of Thursday, October 22), there is still limited seating available for Joshua Redman‘s series of trio shows at the Jazz Standard, which runs through the 25th. You’ll probably have more luck with a weekday or one of the Sunday night sets (7:30 and 9:30 only) – or if you’re a jazz fan and you’re in the neighborhood, you can try your luck  in the event that somebody reserved and then didn’t show up. Because this is a series of shows you should see, in a room particularly suited to such intimate, soulful performances.

It’s hard to believe that last night’s first set was Joshua Redman’s Jazz Standard debut, and he made it a memorable one. Backed by the solid, tasteful groove of Matt Penman on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums, Redman reminded how perfectly his sound works in this format (an all too rare setup for the sax player, even with the resounding success of his 2007 trio album Back East). They opened with a cleverly idiosyncratic, tongue-in-cheek, latinized version of “the one song you wish you’ll never hear again,” as Redman called it, Mack the Knife. Moving from an expansive, bluesy intro, the melody only took shape after a long, casually swinging buildup – was it merely a playful quote, like the others Redman had thrown in, or was it the actual song?

From there, they didn’t waste time getting to what would turn out to be the best song of the set, Ghost, from Redman’s latest cd Compass. It’s a pensively unwinding modal masterpiece, Penman unwaveringly maintaining the suspense as Redman methodically paralleled him, taking the melody deeper and deeper into darkness. Hutchinson finally took it out on an equally tense, gripping note, playing the snare with his hands for a murky, booming ambience. Their covers were also typically purist. Freddie Hubbard’s Crisis took on a defiant, early 70s feel as Redman swung out and around its catchy, chromatic four-note descending hook; Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady was a lush, romantic clinic in how to use the blues scale without ever lapsing into cliche. A breezy, slightly post-bop inflected original bore some impressive resemblance to JD Allen with Redman running scattershot within its tight, catchy architecture, Hutchinson joyously straight-ahead, feeling the room and not overdoing it when it came time for his solo. Finally, at the end of the last number, a 4/4 funk tune with a James Brown catchiness and simplicity, Redman cut loose with some oboeish chromatics – as usual, throughout the show he’d stayed within himself, never overplaying, always making his notes count, purist that he is. He’s never let the hype go to his head, still playing like one of the greats of the fifties. Take a trip back to a great place in time and see one of these shows – it may be awhile before you get a chance to see another like it.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Eldar Djangirov at the Jazz Standard, NYC 9/10/09

Dave Brubeck has given hotshot Kyrgyz-American pianist Eldar Djangirov the thumbs-up, and it makes sense that he would: beyond the two’s shared melodicism, both have a flair for incorporating classical motifs within a jazz framework. Djangirov’s obvious precursor – not assuming that he’s familiar with her work – is the legendary Dorothy Donegan, a ferociously powerful player who was equally at home with the blues and Rachmaninoff. Last night at the Jazz Standard, Djangirov (or Eldar, as his label prefers, given the potentially difficult surname), impressed with a vivid and heartfelt Chopinesque sensibility when he wasn’t barrelling through cascades the length of the keyboard in a blaze of Debussy-inflected color. Where was the jazz? As a great bluesman in the house remarked, this was “Euro-jazz.” Which won’t be a problem for adventurous listeners in search of innovative new talent: this guy qualifies many times over. Still, you have to wonder where his American audience is. It might be more of a rock crowd.

The rhythm section stayed out of the way for most of the show, probably due to unfamiliarity with both the material and the style, and the guest saxophonist didn’t add much on the few occasions he was given, so this became Djangirov’s show – he could have played it solo and wouldn’t have lost any fire. He opened with Exposition, the aptly titled opening cut on his new cd Virtue. It’s an ostentatious showcase for jazzing up classically-inflected hooks, and it worked until he went to his old analog synthesizer above the piano keys and then it was like Yes following Brubeck, a jaw-droppingly awkward segue to say the least. There would be a few like that later.

Insensitive, by contrast, is sarcastically titled – there’s a beautifully lyrical pop song underneath, and Djangirov brought out all the jeweled facets beneath its fluid rivulets. And then lit into an even more attractive, early Romantic style prelude that led back into the theme. Blues Sketch in Clave, also from the new cd, was neither really blues nor clave – it had more of a boisterous Brazilian rhythm – and also featured some beautiful cascading passages. Although a solo cover of the Sinatra standard I Should Care was a heavy-handed mess, Djangirov also gave it a welcome, unexpectedly ominous edge with some gypsy-inflected flourishes in the right hand. The same feeling would take centerstage on the night’s best song, Lullaby Fantasia, which alternated breakneck runs with poignant Chopinesque interludes.

On one level, following the crowd is never necessarily a good idea. But a crowd will also run from a burning building, and crowds of both rock and jazz players have run from most of the keening, woozy synthesizer sounds of the 70s simply because they’re cheesy. It’s amazing what timbre will do: Monk on the piano sounds like Monk; on a synth, it could be anything but Monk and that includes Phil Collins. That Djangirov would be unaware of that is probably a cultural tic: in much of Europe, and pretty much everywhere further east, fusion is still in vogue. While it wouldn’t be fair to label any sound or timbre completely off-limits – even the cheesiest synth has its uses, if only for comedic purposes – if he doesn’t put the thing on the shelf, at least for the jazz rooms, he’s going to get stuck with a fusion tag. Which would be too bad, because his sound innnovatively blends so many other, far more captivating styles. Still in his early twenties, there’s reason to believe this might be a passing phase. He’s at the Jazz Standard through Sunday the 13th, and considering the crowd for yesterday’s early set, reservations and/or early arrival are very highly recommended.

September 11, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

July 29, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments