Live review

Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard, NYC

Mingus Big Band
(Jazz Standard, E 27th Street, New York. 14 October 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

Monday is often a night off in the jazz world, but not at the Jazz Standard, where the Mingus Big Band has a regular berth. Of course, all Mingus Mondays are special, but this autumn they are a little more special as it marks 60 years since the original release of Charles Mingus’ most celebrated album, Mingus Ah Um.

The Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard (Publicity picture)

The band started fast, with Boogie Stop Shuffle. Almost too fast, feeling a little like an aptitude test designed to wake up the players. But they played a delightfully familiar sound with wailing trumpet refrains over busy trombones, even if clarity on a few notes is eschewed for an overarching collective strength. The band then settled into a more controlled space for solos, with Jason Marshall on the baritone sax channeling the Mingus spirit well.

This fast boogie theme has a real cinematic feel. Whispers from the audience referenced movie triumphs like Batman and Robin (ill-fitting spandex and questionable acting) but the live sound does have that comic-book muscularity; ‘Bif!’ and ‘Pow!’ flying above people’s heads. The song’s actual use in a movie, in Absolute Beginners with David Bowie and Patsy Kensit, is a little less action-packed or evocative.

Instead of focusing on the musical tributes to jazz predecessors that make up much of Ah Um, Alex Foster (leading the band from front and centre armed with a selection of saxes) built the set following Mingus’ political themes. After introductions from a musical instrument charity working in Haiti, we got Haitian Fight Song, marking the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804. The arrival of Mingus Big Band sound has a visceral feel: the low rumble at the front from the five saxophones, the trombone trio crackle, and the three trumpets whine, all layered into a careful cacophony. The concept is Mingus, but the delivery is overwhelmingly Mingus Big – the sheer noise of a 14-piece band instead of an over-performing seven-piece.

Political comment brings us back around to Ah Um and Fables of Faubus, a lament on Arkansas School Segregation. It’s compositionally clever, and opened with the raw cries of band members temporarily converted into impassioned vocalists. That spoken fervour was transferred through their instruments into a larger musical conversation, forming a rising noise which was so sweepingly impressive.

For Faubus, soloists are given extra space – Steve Slagle unleashed a long, sinuous alto solo, riding the rest of the group’s rising waves and slickly nailing each change, each climax. Philip Harper started carefully and spare on the trumpet but, as the anguish rose, finished indignantly shrieking.

It’s all slightly surreal having these classic songs presented so live, so close. When the record is so familiar, it’s almost confusing when some bits aren’t quite the same (a missing trumpet top, a different trombone sweep). But Mingus Ah Um converts well to a bigger band format, with ample depth and richness in the few choice horn lines to be shared amongst the many through neat arrangements.

This feels like more than a repertory band. Much of that is down to the fantastically diverse repertoire that they’re probing, and how well it has aged since the late ’50s and early ’60s. But much of that is also down to the camaraderie in the group – the music isn’t stale and the delivery isn’t either. You can hear scatological quips escaping from the trombone section, and Foster is more interested in gentle joshing (only tenor trombone player in NY to have been on Family Feud) and gentle confusion (when introducing new instrumentalists) than fiery band control of old. And Earl McIntyre switched his bass trombone to provide the novelty tuba finish the crowd didn’t know they were missing.

A special mention must be reserved for the man in Mingus’ shoes on the night, Marcos Varela. For his first night playing with the band, and holding down such a pivotal position on bass, he really excelled – swinging through and leading much of the action. Sixty years on from the original release of Mingus Ah Um, the songs are still exciting and relevant. And the Jazz Standard and Mingus Big Band are doing a fine job of continuing to spread the gospel.

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