REVIEW: PROM 53 – Beneath the Underdog – Charles Mingus Revisited

Leo Pellegrino and the Metropole Orkest at  Prom 53
Photo Copyright: BBC/ Mark Allan

REVIEW: Prom 53: Beneath the Underdog: Charles Mingus Revisited
(Royal Albert Hall. 24 August 2017. Review by AJ Dehany)

“I feel like what Mingus created through his music and his playing is so visceral that it deserves a platform to show it off in a slightly different way.” In interview before this BBC Proms concert devoted to the music of Charles Mingus (b.1922, d.1979), conductor Jules Buckley says “We want to demonstrate that orchestral jazz programmes aren’t just Cole Porter and a happy Friday night swingalong— actually there’s some serious intent behind this music and that Charles Mingus is one of the masters of that intent.”

The Metropole Orkest is an orchestra with the feel of a big band. They can go beyond just reading the dots, with several of the payroll taking solos in the course of the evening, including Hans Vroomans on piano, Rik Mol’s trumpet and Marc Scholten’s soprano sax. The frontline soloists are Shabaka Hutchings, Christian Scott, Bart van Lier and singer Kandace Springs. The concert was slow to achieve its aims but came through and by the end had everyone whooping and stomping.

Bart van Lier and Christian Scott
Photo Copyright: BBC/ Mark Allan

The spirit of Mingus begins with the energy of gospel music. “I was born swinging and I clapped my hands as a child.” What’s unique in Mingus is he combined the energy, freedom and joyousness of gospel and blues with an equal fervor for the quite serious classical vocabulary of Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. When he heard Duke Ellington he screamed “I’d never heard gospel music like that!” and it was the Duke’s own third-stream music pushing beyond definitions of jazz or classical that informed Mingus’s music and approach throughout his life. His admiration is explicit in the tribute Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love (1974) which Kandace Springs sings tenderly to very strong orchestral writing in Laura Winkler’s arrangement.

It takes a while for the concert to get going. It feels like a decent big band jazz concert but it doesn’t feel like Mingus. The openers Boogie Stop Shuffle (1959), the ballad Celia (1957), the fast-moving O. P. (Oscar Pettiford) (1970), the intricately structured and chordally-piquant ballad 1 x Love (1957) and even Mingus’s signature melody Goodbye Porkpie Hat (1959) (in an arrangement by Vladimir Nikolov built around Peter Tiehuis’s guitar) are all decent enough. The minor blues II B. S. (1963) is a carbon copy of the more familiar Haitian Fight Song with less of its stomp and swagger, though during its march-time blasts there was a thrill to the drums explosively bouncing off the back of the hall.

Hora Decubitus (1959), a pretty swinging number, has a cheeky moment when the three soloists freely improvise against each other without other accompaniment and by then it’s getting toward that raucous Mingus prayer meeting feel that was lacking at the beginning. By Gunslinging Bird (1959) the soloists have become more animated and it starts to feel more like a Mingus workshop, albeit one given to a degree of shameless exhibitionism that would have surely had Mingus laying out one of his signature punches to the mouth. Trombone educationalist Bart van Lier roams the stage in a shiny jacket, and baritone sax player Leo Pellegrino, in a pink suit and pink coiffure, is further emboldened to hit the front of the stage with a confidently paced solo by turns measured and freely flowing that complements van Lier’s whimsically whizzy work playing directly into the audience and TV camera at the front of the stage. Those watching on BBC Four are gonna get an eyeful.

As Geoffrey Smith said in the Proms Extra conversation prior to the show “In his mature work the pieces weren’t written down, to keep that immediate oral feel of a jam session. He would cue people like a conductor, illuminating the music and illuminating the musician.” Mingus said “I always wanted to be a spontaneous composer.” He combined the improvisatory nature of jazz with the structures of composition and the harmonic depth of classical music.

Shabaka Hutchings
Photo Copyright: BBC/ Mark Allan

As with many of Mingus’s compositions that were allowed to develop through spontaneous composition, Weird Nightmare (1946) was reworked many times, also appearing as a tremendous instrumental Vassarlean (1960) and with lyrics sung tonight by Kandace Springs. On Hal Wilner’s incredible album Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus Elvis Costello gives a haunting first take performance of this accompanied by Harry Partch’s spooky cloud bowls. Stefan Behrisch’s arrangement has a similar spareness and shimmer, with chilling dissonances and mysterious work from Shabaka on bass clarinet, concluding with creepy whispering.

The civil rights anthem Fables of Faubus (1959) is a full-blown blast with cheeky rattles and screeching trumpets and surprise episodes of salsa feel. Tom Trapp’s arrangement brings the theme to life so perfectly that the solos seem like stopgaps between the big ensemble voice, though Shabaka gives a characteristic pepper-spray bass clarinet solo over a 3/8 moment. Further soloing displays the perfect kind of irreverence and originality that Mingus insisted on in his bandmembers. Shabaka takes it down to a rumble, and then a disembowelling low Eb note that makes the whole hall burr. Ensemble vocal contributions recall Mingus and his drummer Dannie Richmond on Original Faubus Fables (on Mingus Presents Mingus) with the pair back-and-forthing “Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie!” “Governor Faubus!” “Why is he sick and ridiculous?” “He won’t permit integrated schools!” “Then he’s a fool!” Even without the words the pro-integrationist message of the piece was ne’er more boldly outlined than in Tom Trapp’s fabulous, Faubulous, arrangement, with its crime movie chordal writing and strenuously blasting brass.

Joni Mitchell’s 1979 album Mingus started as a collaboration but was unfinished when Mingus died. God Must Be A Boogie Man (1979) is a Mitchell original inspired by the opening of Mingus’s must-read mad-dog autobiography Beneath the Underdog. Mingus explains to his shrink that there are three Minguses: the pensive thoughtful man, a frightened animal who attacks, and a lover who retreats from his own oversensitivity. The variety and depth of his compositions speak to the complexity of the man’s character, and what a character. The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines is based on one of Mingus’s tall tales about a guy getting a lucky break at the fruit machine. On record it’s one of Jaco Pastorius’s most funky and ridiculous god-of-bass moments featuring his typically punchy brass writing. It meanders a bit without these elements, but Boogie Man is sung by Kandace Springs with sensitivity and the response vocal ably called out by the audience, who by the end are intimately involved in the proceedings.

Kandace Springs
Photo Copyright: BBC/ Mark Allan

Moanin’ (1959) was moved from second in the programme to second last. It would have livened up the early part of the concert, but as it turned out things got very lively later on, with this set-piece a show-stealing moment for Leo Pellegrino. The baritone sax intro originally played by Ronnie Cuber is hugely expanded in this arrangement by Tom Trapp into a crazy-exciting extended ‘brass house’ intro several minutes long. Over a disco rhythm, the flamboyant Leo Pellegrino added Millennial Whoops to the riff and danced like a pink-coiffured Prince in a pink suit, waving the baritone sax like a rattle. A magnetic performer and massive showoff, his kicking leg dance, waving, weightlifting, spinning and cavorting, won him a lot of love in this his Proms debut (I can’t believe it’s also only now Shabaka’s Proms debut). He’s a champ and the audience were in heaven with uproarious applause and stamping, terrific excitement in the room.

It’s legit to whoop during Better Git It In Your Soul (1959), the natural choice to end the concert with its exuberant themes and baptist prayer meeting feels. When a cameraman moves in close on the piano solo, I get the feel of a small gig in a late night club, an exciting intimacy to the confidence of Hans Vroomans’ McCoy Tyner esque joanna-swallowing and a succession of overlapping solos with Scott’s trumpet, van Lier’s trombone and Shabaka’s pepper-spray bass clarinet. It feels like the original Mingus Jazz Workshop: everyone singing out individually but together. A Mexican wave of noise erupts around the hall— ev’rybody singin’ an’ swingin’ an’ clappin’ they hands.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Prom 53: Beneath the Underdog: Charles Mingus Revisited was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (LINK) and will be screened tonight (Friday 25 August) at 7.30pm on BBC Four.

Jules Buckley
Photo Copyright: BBC/ Mark Allan



Boogie Stop Shuffle, arr. John Clayton
Celia, arr. Outi Tarkiainen
O. P. (Oscar Pettiford), arr. Ilja Reijngoud
1 x Love, arr. Vladimir Nikolov
Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, arr. Vladimir Nikolov
II B. S., arr. John Clayton
Weird Nightmare, arr. Stefan Behrisch
Gunslinging Bird, arr. Gil Goldstein


Fables of Faubus, arr. Tom Trapp
Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love – arr. Laura Winkler
Hora Decubitus, arr. Joan Reinders
God Must Be a Boogie Man, arr. Vince Mendoza
The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines – arr. Tim Davies
Moanin’, arr. Tom Trapp
Better Git It in Your Soul, arr. Tom Trapp


Shabaka Hutchings bass clarinet
Bart van Lier trombone
Leo Pellegrino baritone saxophone
Christian Scott trumpet
Kandace Springs vocalist
Metropole Orkest –  Arlia de Ruiter leader
Jules Buckley conductor

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. The programme lists “Jazz Bass: Aram Kersbergen” – That was another curious thing about this concert. Mingus's stature as a bass player was pretty much overlooked. They were focusing on an orchestral presentation of his compositions, so fair enough. On that note, I wanted to say that as enjoyable as some of those orchestrations were, the whole thing to me did seem to prove Mingus's point about the value and vitality of learning and knowing rather than reading the music!

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