Album reviews

Magnus Lindgren & Georg Breinschmid – ‘Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XIII: Celebrating Mingus 100’

Magnus Lindgren & Georg Breinschmid – Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XIII: Celebrating Mingus 100

(ACT 9955-2. Album review by Julian Maynard-Smith)

Which album is Mingus’s masterpiece? Many argue for The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which is indeed essential listening, an album that demands its place in any core jazz collection. But if you’re after sheer joyfulness and irrepressible catchiness, the winner has to be Mingus Ah Um. Who’s not listened to that album for the first time and been swept along by the rumbustious gospel of ‘Better Git it in Your Soul’, the mournful and elegiac blues feel of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, the bustling locomotive propulsion of ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’, the tender ballad ‘Self-Portrait in Three Colors’, the playful bluesy swing of ‘Jelly Roll’ and the comic slurred lurching of the irrepressibly catchy ‘Fables of Faubus’? 

Perhaps Magnus Lindgren (reeds player) and Georg Breinschmid (bassist), the two arrangers for this live concert in celebrating the centenary of Mingus’s birth, reached the same conclusion. After all, they had the whole of Mingus’s extensive catalogue to plunder yet chose only those six tunes. It’s in marked contrast to Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XII – Sketches of Miles, also arranged by Lindgren, a double CD whose eight tracks are culled from no less than seven Miles Davis albums.

Since Mingus’s death in 1979, at least three tribute bands have kept his music alive: the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Legacy, and Mingus Orchestra, all assembled by his widow Sue Mingus. So the next question is this: can yet another big-band tribute say anything new in April 2022 (which, by a cruel irony, is not only the month of Mingus’s birth centenary but also of Sue Mingus’s death)? Listening to the recorded evidence, I think the answer is ‘yes’ – or perhaps ‘with music this good, who cares?’

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The similarities to the original are undeniable: Mingus Ah Um was played by an octet comprising alto and tenor saxophones (with saxophonist John Handy adding clarinet on one track), trombones, piano, double bass (of course!) and drums – and Celebrating Mingus 100 is a nonet comprising alto, tenor and baritone saxophone (with bari player Lindgren doubling on bass clarinet), trumpet, trombone, piano, double bass, drums, and vocals. Even Breinschmid’s bass playing sounds indebted to Mingus, sharing that thick and woody impasto tone; it’s especially noticeable on his solo that opens the concert, which is full of slaps and glissandi, and which even quotes Sonny Rollins’s ‘Sonnymoon for Two’ – just as Horace Parlan did in his piano solo in the original version of ‘Jelly Roll’.

And this tribute band certainly captures the spirit the original Mingus Ah Um performances: the up-tempo numbers (‘Jelly Roll’, ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’, and ‘Better Git It in Your Soul’) share a similar raucous energy, albeit sounding a bit politer and more arranged; and on ‘Fables of Faubus’ the band really enjoys hamming up the loping, comical march feel of the original, adding vocal whoops to the head. 

But it’s perhaps the differences rather than the similarities that most make this album worth hearing. For example, Lindgren said of his role in the concert ‘I love Pepper Adams – and it’s fun to play baritone’ and that’s evident from his boisterous solos, which are closer in spirit to the raw-toned and fiery bebop of Adams than, say, the cool West Coast sound of Gerry Mulligan. Not that Lindgren can’t play tenderly, as on ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ – and the band cleverly replaces the obvious saxophone solo (the tune is, after all, a tribute to Lester Young) with a piano solo. 

The real standout on ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, though, is a terrific vocal performance with original French lyrics from French jazz star Camille Bertault, who swoops from breathy caresses to scatting with a trumpet-like purity, and who finishes on a lung-busting high E lasting around 16 seconds. Inevitably, any vocal performance of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ is going to draw comparisons with Joni Mitchell’s on her Mingus dedication Mingus, but this big-band performance is very different from the minimalist jazz played by what was essentially Weather Report plus Joni Mitchell. And Bertault delivers a second fine vocal performance (again, with original French lyrics) on ‘Self-Portrait in Three Colors’. 

The musicianship all-round is top-notch, both in the ensemble playing and the soloing. Lindgren, Danny Grissett (piano) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) were dazzling together on Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic XII – Sketches of Miles and shine here too; but equal kudos to the other players, Tony Lakatos (tenor sax), Jakob Manz (alto sax), Matthias Schriefl (trumpet) and Shannon Barnett (trombone).

In short, if you know and love the original Mingus Ah Um (as I suspect virtually all LJN readers do), this recording will offer you plenty of treats and surprises. And if you don’t know the original, listen to that first – but do give this recording a go as well.

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