Ever the advocate for the next generation of jazz greats, Sue Mingus took the bandstand briefly midway through the Mingus Big Band’s sold-out show last night at the Jazz Standard to encourage the audience to visit Manhattan School of Music today. From 1 to 5 PM, members of the three Mingus repertory ensembles are giving free seminars for the benefit of participants in this year’s Mingus high school competition, and the public is welcome to attend as well, “If that sort of thing interests you,” as she put it. If you’d rather see this band itself, they’re playing an all-too-rare Jazz Standard weekend stand through this Sunday, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM: as usual at this venue, early arrival and/or reservations are very highly encouraged.
The band was transcendent, as usual: explosive and pretty relentlessly intense, but also brimming with good humor that spilled over abundantly in just the right places. On one hand, that’s to be expected given the depth of the Mingus catalog (and this band’s Grammy win for the live album they made here as 2008 turned into 2009). On the other, it’s easy to take these groups for granted, since one of them is always here at the Jazz Standard every Monday. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it,” baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber hollered to his bandmates as he launched into an irrepressibly romping stop-time solo passage early on in E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too while they waited with bated breath to leap back in. Moanin’, which closed the night’s first set, was a real barn-burner, Scott Robinson matter-of-factly setting up a blistering charge from fellow tenorist Wayne Escoffery. The band also rampaged through Slippers – a relatively rare tune in the band’s repertoire, played especially for the high school contingent who’ll be doing it over the weekend – with drummer Adam Cruz taking it down to a noir suspense with his solo midway through, working it expertly from nonchalant clave, to a hypnotically tribal rumble, to a crescendo that reverted to wild abandon.
The highlight of the night was another infrequent choice, Sue’s Changes, a wry, wickedly insightful and eventually tender tribute from the composer to his mercurial, irrepressibly energetic, reliably surprising wife. After the band had done a first pass through the song’s endlesss series of metric changes, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy offered a coy smooch with his mouthpiece before going deep into the blues, pianist Jim Ridl channeling a radiant glimmer before the final joyous full ensemble onslaught. A bit later, they began Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love lushly and brightly, but also carefully until Boris Kozlov’s bass solo, part High Romantic, part devious funk – after which point everybody put away any more romantic notions and swung like crazy. It was contagious: stellar and judicious performances from a cast including but not limited to alto saxophonist Alex Foster, trombonist/crooner par excellence Ku’Umba Frank Lacy (who also sang Elvis Costello’s lyrics on the opening number), trombonists Earl McIntyre and Conrad Herwig, and trumpeters Kenny Rampton and Greg Gisbert.
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.