Review: Mingus Big Band




Andy Hamilton returns to Ronnie's after a 30-year absence to see a legacy big band that despite frequently shifting personnel convincingly captures the Mingus identity

Your intrepid correspondent woke up one morning with the realisation that he hadn’t visited Ronnie Scott’s club since the days of a special membership offer in the 1980s. It seemed time to rectify that omission. In between the club has had its ups and downs, but it’s evident that it’s now on a roll. The Mingus Big Band was repeating its sell-out run of last year, and I caught it on the penultimate night of its six-day engagement.

The opening band was an excellent trio led by the intriguing British pianist Tom Cawley, and featuring bassist Arnie Somogyi and drummer Chris Higginbotham. Cawley is a witty announcer and a lucid and engaging soloist, though the highlight of the set was a version of I Can’t Get Started where the bassist played the theme and soloed first – to my surprise and indeed amazement, against the backdrop of an attentive and almost silent audience. (It always used to be a drawback of Scott's that the jazz tourist crowd were a noisy presence, hence, I seem to recall, Lee Konitz’s famous T-shirt, “Listen”.) The trio were joined for the closing Straight No Chaser by trumpeter Tatum Greenblatt from the Mingus Big Band.

This aggregation is under the artistic direction of Charles Mingus’s widow Sue Mingus, and its personnel seems quite fluid – perhaps for reasons apparent in a YouTube video which plays ansaphone messages by musicians excusing themselves for not making a gig! The regulars seem to be Tatum Greenblatt, Philip Harper (trumpets), Clark Gayton (trombone), Abraham Burton (alto sax) and Ronnie Cuber (baritone). But in Italy earlier this year it featured Robin Eubanks on trombone, Adam Cruz on drums and Jim Ridl on piano. Bassist Boris Kozlov did the introductions this time, but Mike Richmond has also occupied the bass chair. Completing the line-up at Scott's were Craig Handy, Brandon Wright, Wayne Escoffery (saxes), Luis Bonilla, Earl McIntyre (trombones), Alex Pope Norris (trumpet), Helen Sung (piano) and Tommy Campbell (bass). Despite shifts in personnel, they captured the Mingus identity for sure.

The band opened and closed with well-known Mingus compositions – Peggy’s Blue Skylight, arranged by Ronnie Cuber, and a medley of Mingus favourites concluding with Slop. In between was less familiar material. Little Royal Suite is a tribute to Roy Eldridge. It began with a duet between trumpet (Alex Pope Norris – a very taxing part) and drums, before moving into more familiar Mingus territory, with characteristic time and metre shifts. The piano solo by Helen Sung was delightfully Byard-like. Invisible Lady consisted of Mingus sketches put together by Jack Walrath, and featured an impassioned alto solo by Abraham Burton. Meditations On Integration (Or For A Pair Of Wire-Cutters) was a highlight. Brandon Wright on flute partnered Kozlov’s arco bass, brilliantly capturing the haunting, out-of-kilter theme. Again, the audience was amazingly quiet during the flute-piano duet.

Drummer Tommy Campbell was a model of taste throughout, except perhaps for the “squeaky” sticks on cymbal in the finale. Earl McIntyre was allowed a vaudeville-style tuba solo in the final coda, but maybe as the only Mingus veteran in the band, should have had more solo space. A low-ceilinged club like Ronnie’s might not be the ideal venue acoustically for a big band, but that was balanced by the excitement and sense of occasion generated. This was a really memorable gig by one of the finest legacy bands in jazz.


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