Review: Nu Civilisation Orchestra – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady at the Purcell Room (LJF)

Nu Civilisation Orchestra. Photo Credit Roger Thomas, All Rights Reserved

Nu Civilisation Orchestra – The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
(Purcell Room November 22nd 2013 – LJF. Review by Jon Turney)

Three double basses lay side by side on the stage as the audience assembled. In the first set, each was played alone briefly, one each by Gary Crosby, Dave Green and Peter Ind, a swinging Gandalf lookalike at 85. Then the trio, happily dubbed Lords of the Lower Frequency by the organisers, joined on Oscar Pettiford’s Blues in the Closet, a fine vehicle for interweaving lines from three pairs of hands. Inga Eichler, heard earlier on the freestage with Tomorrow’s Warriors, slipped behind Crosby’s bass for the last few choruses, to make it four generations of jazz bass on one stage – a tradition renewing itself before your eyes.

Bass tradition was in the foreground because of the evening’s presiding deity, Charles Mingus. But he was, of course, as remarkable a composer as player. Much of his best work can be sampled in many versions from concert recordings. Not so for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which many count his very best. It was a studio creation, and only bits and pieces were ever heard live in the composer’s lifetime.

Who could recreate it for its fiftieth anniversary year? Step forward Peter Edwards and the Nu Civilisation Orchestra. Edwards has a great record of arranging and rearranging, a fine piano touch, and an 11-piece ensemble to work with, which happens to be just the right size.

For Black Saint he retained the original 11-piece instrumentation, with its vital roles for tuba, flute and Spanish guitar, and took advantage of Nu Civilisation regulars Byron Wallen on lead trumpet and Nathaniel Facey on alto sax – two players who would surely have been welcome in any Mingus band.

This is Mingus music. Not easy then, and performing the whole suite without the original splices, overdubs or retakes must be a little daunting. These 11 rose to the challenge superbly. The ensemble was flawless. The growls and roars which Mingus called for in this, his most Ellingtonian piece, were perfectly rendered, the abrupt switches of mood, accelerating tempos and swooping unison riffs were all there. Solos from the leader, taking a part once filled by Jaki Byard, provided cool relief. Those from Wallen and Facey – raised the temperature again. Facey’s closing coda on alto matched anything the great Charlie Mariano delivered in the studio half a century ago.

Jazz treated as cultural treasure can run against assumptions about it being quintessentially music of the moment, but hard to imagine anyone in the packed Purcell room doubting that this was a moving, breathing work. The recording remains a wonder, but recreated live the music seemed fresh as ever and more vividly coloured, more intense.

The result was like getting up close to a great painting you have only seen in reproduction: you get a fresh sense of why it is a masterpiece. I really hope it can be heard more widely, to give everyone the chance to appreciate one of jazz’s (or ‘ethnic folk dance music’, if you prefer Mingus’ gloss) finest achievements.

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