Review: Mingus Big Band




Bob Weir enjoyed the Mingus Big Band during its six-night residency at Ronnie Scott's, admiring the strength and sincerity of its playing

The 14-piece Mingus Big Band was developed by Sue Mingus from her Mingus Dynasty small group to perpetuate Mingus's compositions after his death in 1979. Both outfits started with several Mingus sidemen and although the personnel have been consistent for long periods the only one left today who played with him is Earl McIntyre. The current band has performed a long Monday night residency at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan with regular foreign tours including stints at Ronnie's in most of the past 20 years. This stability and the players' commitment to Mingus's vision result in a high degree of cohesion and empathy.

This year at Ronnie's, the big band played 12 sold-out concerts over six nights with a different selection of Mingus compositions every time. They ranged across his full composing and recording career from, for example, Baby Take A Chance On Me, written in 1939 and recorded at his first name session, to Devil Woman which he included at his final record date in 1978. Philip Harper sang on both with skill and conviction. There were familiar favourites (Meditations, Boogie Stop Shuffle, Peggy's Blue Skylight etc) but also several numbers seldom heard nowadays outside the orbit of this worthy institution.

On my Tuesday night visit the highlight of each show was an extensive piece displaying the peak of Mingus's composing and arranging talents. Little Royal Suite (for Roy Eldridge) at the first house featured Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and The Shoes Of The Fisherman's Wife at the second had a dazzling piano interlude by Helen Sung and blistering tenor sax from Wayne Escoffery. Mingus wrote many sincere and moving tributes to his musical friends. Tuesday's shows included requiems for Eric Dolphy (So Long Eric) and Lester Young (Goodbye Pork Pie Hat) - the latter with brilliant tenor sax from Abraham Burton. Another standout was G.G. Train - Mingus's response to Duke's A-Train - with thrilling solos by trombonist Conrad Herwig (pictured above right) and alto saxist Brandon Wright.

In fact, every member was a top-flight soloist and there were other outstanding contributions from Alex Norris and Philip Harper (t), Andy Hunter (tb), Alex Terrier (as, pictured left) and Lauren Sevian (bar). The ensemble depth so essential to Mingus's music was supplied magnificently by Earl McIntyre on bass trombone and tuba. The superb rhythm section was fired by Boris Kozlov (rightly introduced at both concerts as the only bassist worthy of the Mingus role) and swinging Donald Edwards on drums.

I am grateful to Alex Terrier for arranging an interview with Kozlov and McIntyre before the concerts. They shared their deep knowledge and appreciation of Mingus's key role in the post-war development of modern jazz. He was always ahead of his time and his anticipation of important changes that occurred after his departure is what makes his music so relevant today. Both insisted that theirs is not a ghost band of nostalgic recreations. Rather, they have taken the form and spirit of the mostly small group recordings and introduced fresh, expanded arrangements from within the band in a way they believe Mingus would have wanted had he not been denied the opportunity and resources during his lifetime.

The strength and sincerity of the band's playing at Ronnie Scott's, as well as being thoroughly enjoyable, fully endorsed their approach and will ensure that the Mingus magic lives on.


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