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Mingus Big Band '93
 Nostalgia in Times Square, Dreyfus CD 36559

 This is not your father's big band

As good as Charles Mingus was as a bass player, which is to say one of the greatest, I am sure he will eventually be remembered more as a composer. Since his death in 1979, Mingus's music has not been much recorded, except by the band of Mingus alums called Mingus Dynasty (some of whom are on this album). This is a shame, since Mingus is one of a handful of truly great jazz composers, extending the tradition of Ellington and Monk, and striding the full range of jazz from gospel and Dixieland to hard bop and free jazz. The Mingus Big Band, run by Mingus's widow Sue, evolved from the large group put together by Gunther Schuller for the posthumous performance of Mingus's massive "Epitaph." The band plays weekly in New York with a revolving list of performers and arrangers. This is the first of two CDs the band has recorded.

The whole album cooks hard from start to finish, with nary a letup except for the quiet "Self-Portrait," performed almost as an elegy. The arrangements are by Mingus himself, updated in some cases, and by Sy Johnson (terrific), Jack Walrath, and Ronnie Cuber. A lot if it is very free, so that hearing Mingus's complex melodies and structures played by this band makes clear his kinship to (or influence on) Sun Ra.

 Nostalgia in Times Square kicks things off with a hip narration by Ronnie Cuber about meeting Mingus for the first time in New York, sitting in with his band, and surviving. Cuber's swinging arrangement is very much in the tradition and he has a smoking baritone sax solo.

Then things really get heated with Sy Johnson's arrangement of "Moanin'." A raucous statement of the gospel theme by Cuber is supported by vocal exhortations by the band, recalling Mingus's own shouts. A thundering chart, with the sections playing off each other in very complex ways, then coming together for serious sermonizing. It all ends with a kid's siren whistle spinning down. Great! This one almost breaks completely loose, as does Johnson's album-closer, "Ecclusiastics." Here, rich church chords extended with tart minor seconds state the melody. Then John Stubblefield and Craig Handy on tenor see who can win the most converts. A Latinesque six-eight undercurrent is noticeable, as it is pretty much all through the album. As with the other cuts, I sense some artificial highlighting from the recording console (or during mixing, more likely), but it is done tastefully.

Johnson turns in a third great arrangement on "Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too." Shouts and a variety of shrieks and squawks from Lew Soloff (including duck calls) start things off, then the band lopes into the intricate six-eight melody, with a left-footed circus waltz break. Chris Potter provides a good sturdy tenor solo. Then Steve Slagle on alto provides a bridge to Dave Taylor's bass trombone, which staggers into the center ring, followed by the whole band playing every circus tune you remember all at once. Wild!

The other big highlight for me was "Weird Nightmare," arranged by Mingus and re-orchestrated by Sam Burtis. It opens and closes with a prepared piano (I think that's what it is - paper on the strings, sounding a bit like a kalimba), assorted percussion, trumpet, and flutes. Craig Handy strolls the theme against a background of mustard yellow and hot pink chords. The flutes seem to be visiting briefly from another planet all through this piece. Forget about exotica, this is the real stuff.

Jack Walrath is a great not-well-known trumpeter, and he provides both fine solos and a nice arrangement of "Duke Ellington's Sounds of Love," with the sax section playing Mingus's solo from Changes One in harmony. This is a lovely melody, with echoes of Ellington cohort Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Walrath's arrangement of "Invisible Lady" is full of that Latin feel, with Ray Mantilla on congas. This is another deceptively simple, marvelously complex Mingus melody. Walrath takes an excellent solo (my fave on the album) with echoes of the bullring.

This is a great album. Mingus's compositions shine in the new (and old) arrangements. Listening to all 77+ minutes of it is an exhilarating, not exhausting, experience. Music for those who like noisy taverns on Saturday night and and down-home sermonizing Sunday morning. --  Glenn Brooks

 Jason Staczek says... I had a chance to catch the Mingus Big Band in New York shortly after I heard this record. It was a treat to see the workshop in motion. The band radiated a palpable reverence for Mingus and his music. So reverent were they that bandleader Steve Slagle wasn't shy about stopping the band to reread a rough section, eliciting whoops of excitement from the audience. I have to say, this CD does an amazing job of capturing the feel of the band in that situation, and it also reveals a ton of detail that's tough to hear in the cramped quarters of Fez. About the only thing it doesn't reproduce for me is the experience of eavesdropping on jazz bass master and fellow audience member Leroy Vinnegar as he reminisced about the old days with the boys in the band.

production notes
Randy Brecker, Ryan Kisor, Lew Soloff, Jack Walrath, Chris Kase, trumpets; Art Baron, Sam Burtis, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Dave Taylor, trombones; Ronnie Cuber, Alex Foster, Craig Handy, Chris Potter, Roger Rosenberg, Steve Slagle, John Stubblefield, reeds; Kenny Drew, Jr., piano; Michael Formanek, Andy McKee, bass; Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Victor Jones, drums; Ray Mantilla, congas; Joe Locke, vibes.
Produced by Sue Mingus. 32-track digital recording engineered by Ed Rak. Recorded in 1993. (77:59)

song titles
Nostalgia in Times Square
Self-Portrait in 3 Colors
Don't Be Afraid, the Clown's Afraid, Too
Duke Ellington's Sound of Love
Mingus Fingers
Weird Nightmare
Open Letter to Duke
Invisible Lady

of related interest

Mingus Big Band
Gun Slinging Bird, 1995, Dreyfus CD 36595

Charles Mingus
Changes One, 1974, Atlantic/Rhino CD 71403
Epitaph, 1990, Columbia/Sony CDx2 45428

Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra
Fate in a Pleasant Mood/When Sun Comes Out, 1960 , Evidence CD 22068

 if you're in New York...

The Mingus Big Band appears every Thursday at Fez (downstairs at the Time Cafe). Sets at 9:30 and 11:30. $18 cover plus 2 drink minimum. Reservations suggested. 380 Lafayette, New York NY 10003, 212-533-7000

 and if you're not...

Here's an excellent World Wide Web site devoted to Mingus, and another "official" site

Copyright © 1995 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.