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Review: Mingus Big Band at Ronnie Scott’s

Mingus Big Band
(Ronnie Scott’s, Monday 26 November. Review by Chris Parker)

Seeing the Mingus Big Band is always one of the most profound pleasures live jazz has to offer, not simply for nostalgic reasons (though Mingus’s music was the reason I was first bitten by the jazz bug, courtesy of a friend at university who patiently played me Tonight at Noon, Tijuana Moods and Black Saint and the Sinner Lady until I ‘got it’, and Mingus was the first jazz act I ever saw at Ronnie’s, back in the early 1970s), but also because they are, quite simply, the most dedicated and accomplished interpreters of what must be (Ellington’s aside) the greatest body of composed work in the genre.

The personnel, of course, has constantly changed since the inception of the band in the early 1990s – ‘an experiment with a one-month contract’ in producer Sue Mingus’s words – but its aim, again in her words, remains the same: ‘to stay true to Charles’s spirit: unpredictable, risk-taking, explosive’. All three adjectives still apply (in spades) to the music produced by this particular version of the band, led by virtuoso bassist Boris Kozlov and fiery but elegant trumpeter Alex Sipiagin.

They began with ‘explosive’: the quintessential Mingus driving blues ‘E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too’ (first soloist the admirably sinewy and eloquent baritone player Lauren Sevian), then eased into one of Mingus’s most affecting ballads: ‘Invisible Lady’, a feature for the sonorous, emotive trombone of Conrad Herwig and accommodating a perfectly judged tenor contribution from Abraham Burton.

‘Risk-taking’ and ‘unpredictable’ were represented by a piece as extended and unexpected as its title: ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Ass Slippers’, introduced by Kozlov as a pioneering work melding classical and jazz forms, its numerous twists and turns faultlessly negotiated by the ensemble, and its standout solo, appropriately combining tumultuous power and delicate precision in equal proportions, performed by pianist Helen Sung, who is a real find, strikingly arresting in her solos, and wholly assured in her accompanying role.

Another ballad followed: ‘Diane/Alice’s Wonderland’, a vehicle for the sweet-toned but vibrant alto of Scott Robinson and the slow-burning, steady flare of Philip Harper’s trumpet. Brass players then left the stage for a reeds-only feature: ‘Bird Calls’, a tribute to Charlie Parker giving rise to some delightful quickfire saxophone jousts from the above-mentioned practitioners as well as section-mates Jaleel Shawand Brandon Wright.

Culminating in a rousing visit to another blues, a valedictory salute to Eric Dolphy, ‘So Long, Eric’, this 80-minute set provided not only a perfect vindication of Sue Mingus’s stated aim in forming the band – ‘the point is to keep a balance between the hits – the fun, swinging pieces and the blues and gospel – and the more difficult, extended, through-composed pieces’ – but also a welcome sign that putting on big-band music is still an attractive (and viable – the club was packed, for a first early Monday-night set) option for club promoters in these economically straitened times.

Congratulations to Ronnie’s for continuing Ronnie Scott’s and Pete King’s dedicated pursuit of core jazz values, all of which are epitomised by this rumbustious, hard-swinging but consummately musicianly fourteen-piece band.

Listen to our interview/preview with Sue Mingus HERE

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