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.