Review: The Mingus Prom

Bruce Lindsay heard Christian Scott and Shabaka Hutchings join the Metropole Orkest to celebrate the music of one of the great jazz composers

'Prom 53: Beneath The Underdog, Charles Mingus Revisited', to give this concert its official title, was devoted to the Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jules Buckley (pictured right), and the music of Charles Mingus (Beneath The Underdog is the title of Mingus’s autobiography).

This was one of the Proms’ favourite orchestras playing the music of one of the great jazz composers, with guest appearances from Shabaka Hutchings, Kandace Springs and Christian Scott - sure to be a winner all round.

At the night’s end I left the Albert Hall wondering why I felt quite so disappointed. Most of Mingus’s best-known and most popular compositions were in the set (along with a couple of songs from Joni Mitchell’s Mingus album). The Orkest’s players are clearly talented. Hutchings, on bass clarinet, and Scott, on his trademark “point at the sky” trumpet, played sublimely throughout the concert (to be honest, if everyone else had forgotten to turn up I would have happily listened to the pair trading solos all night). Most of the audience responded enthusiastically to each and every number, applauding solos and giving out whoops and hollers, especially in the second half. Trombonist Bart van Lier, resplendent in a shiny red jacket, and pink-haired baritone saxophonist Leo Pellegrino joined Scott and Hutchings as soloists and proved to be immediate hits with their full-throated, raw-toned playing.

Perhaps surprisingly, the hall was far from full. Up in the Rausing Circle - as close to the Gods as it’s possible to get in the Albert Hall without having to stand in the Gallery - there was plenty of room to spread out, but there was a lack of involvement and the hall’s acoustics often meant that the Orkest’s string section was almost inaudible. Van Lier (pictured left with Christian Scott) and Pellegrino often played to the Promenaders (and to the TV cameras among them) and soon had the crowd on the lower levels cheering and clapping, but the response from the Rausing seats was far less voluble and excited. It was as if the neighbours were having a party but neglected to invite us.

The Orkest opened with Boogie Stop Shuffle, a version that never really achieved boogie status, nor much of a shuffle, but served to warm up the players and the crowd. Buckley then stopped the action to explain some changes to the concert’s set list - a somewhat irrelevant piece of information to those of us who didn’t buy a copy of the programme - before asking everyone to join together to create a “Mexican Wave of noise.” The musical programme resumed with Celia and O.P. On Goodbye Pork Pie Hat the Orkest’s guitarist took the lead role: his bluesy tone sounded clearly through the hall but lacked the warmth (and instrumental connection to Lester Young) that the tenor sax could have brought.

Set two started with Fables Of Faubus: a punchy, tough, version that was one of the highlights of the night. Guest vocalist Kandace Springs had her best moments in the second half, especially on God Must Be A Boogie Man. However, she was also poorly served by the hall’s acoustics: her decision to sit in front of the strings, facing stage left, also made it difficult for her to establish a strong stage presence. The set ended with Moanin’, which proved to be a vehicle for Pellegrino’s odd mix of raucous baritone sax and dance moves - imagine David Brent’s disco routine mixed with an uptempo Ministry Of Silly Walks with the addition of a large lump of brass. It was at once ridiculous and old-fashioned but it was entertaining and Pellegrino's moves received the night's loudest roar of audience approval.

The principal performers left the stage, to return soon after for Better Git It In Your Soul. By this point the Orkest and soloists were fired up and ready to blow and the tune proved to be a fitting end to the night. There were plenty of whoops and handclaps, but there were also quite a few people making their way out before the end. So applause for the music of one of the jazz world’s greatest composers never quite matched the reception accorded to a pink-haired bari player’s knee-trembling and high kicks. Which was quite disappointing.

Photos by Mark Allan courtesy of the BBC

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Your Comments:

Posted by Elab, 27 August 2017, 10:47 (1 of 9)

Totally agree with this review. I was in the rausing circle and thought the strings ruined it. Loved all the soloists but could have lived without the orchestration. Third time I had seen shabaka in a week but he delivers every time. His set at jazz cafe was outstanding.

Posted by scott willcox, 28 August 2017, 14:36 (2 of 9)

I only saw part of this concert on TV. Leo Pellegrino was a show stopper for me, but overall I felt as I have at other similar events that a vast space like the RAH is not ideal for jazz and that the evening suffered accordingly.

Posted by John Mather, 28 August 2017, 18:50 (3 of 9)

I thought your comments regarding Leo Pellegrinos performance was a typical jazz snob reaction to a truly electrifying performance , well done to Leo for putting jazz on the populist map !

Posted by Bruce Lindsay, 29 August 2017, 11:47 (4 of 9)

Thanks for the comments folks. I haven't seen the TV broadcast - I suspect that Pellegrino and van Lier would both come over well visually on the BBC but from my vantage point they didn't excite. I'm all for jazz becoming popular - but it was Pellegrino's rather unexciting dance moves that got the biggest response, not the jazz music that was supposed to be the focus of the concert, hence my disappointment. Cab Calloway, Sun Ra and many others were much more interesting visually many years before this and I love them. Just to put the record straight - I'm not a jazz snob, I'm a music snob. Terpsichore is my least favourite muse (except possibly Dominic Howard).

Posted by Steve Lawless, 4 September 2017, 19:32 (5 of 9)

I was also there in the circle. I agree that the accoustics were not good, although better than at some jazz gigs I've been to. I'm also not a fan of strings but if you go to see a jazz orchestra then it's rather bizzare to criticise them. Leo P was not only an exciting dancer and showman but displayed phenominal chops as is self evident from the catchup video. It was the combination of two that brought the house down.

Posted by Bruce Lindsay, 5 September 2017, 14:53 (6 of 9)

Hi Steve. It would certainly be bizarre to criticize a string section simply for being present in an orchestra - that isn't, of course, what I did. I noted that the string section was at times almost inaudible. And to me Pellegrino was not an exciting dancer - I am sure that close-up TV shots of him in action might offer a different perspective, but as someone brought up on King Curtis, Clarence Clemons and others I think that he still has some way to go.

Posted by Allen Brit, 21 September 2017, 3:38 (7 of 9)

I thought many of the soloists as well as orchestra came across well on TV (i wasnt there in person so I can't speak to that). Leo P was especially exciting as his mastery of his instrument, body and timing really brought excitement to an otherwise staid musical presentation. I have to disagree with the author, a self described 'music' snob that Leo's performance was less than masterful. If you look at the kinds of music and performances jazz started with, the improvisation of music and body were part and parcel to the 'fun' that defined the music. Leo IMHO represented that spirit with an authenticity and joy that was evident throughout the performance.

Posted by Bruce Lindsay, 28 September 2017, 17:55 (8 of 9)

Hi Allen I'm more than happy for you to disagree with me, of course. However, as I have said, from my position in the hall Leo P didn't excite me - and I've seen many, many musicians over the years whose playing plus dance moves have been far more impressive and fun. BTW, I'm not really a music snob - the comment was intended to be a muse-related joke [one of two in that sentence]. Sadly, the jokes fell flat. But I still find them amusing.

Posted by Alastair, 20 June 2018, 21:42 (9 of 9)

I saw this on tv and absolutely loved it. All the way though out - the highlight for me was Moanin' and being a saxophonist myself loved Leo P's performance, both his dance moves and especially his solos. I believe that both him in that evening and his music videos, such as Lucky Chops, Too Many Zoos, etc he is bringing life back to Jazz. I'm 18 and personally believe that he is what is needed to bring more people into jazz and make it great like it used to be. More people need to realise that the days of standing or sitting still while playing is not interesting anymore, and the great music has to be matched with movement and style.

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