Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Mingus amongus

Posted By on Wed, Sep 29, 1999 at 12:00 AM

No jazz musician has been serviced so well in death as Charles Mingus. In life the volatile Mingus led big bands only for special occasions, otherwise forcing himself to imply Ellingtonian splendor with mere combos. Two decades after his death, the permanent big band he never had gathers weekly at the Fez, a New York club, giving full gale force to Mingus’ big-band pieces, extrapolating on the combo pieces to rattle the ceiling as Mingus might have. If you caught their 1997 Montreux-Detroit appearance, you felt the same bracing wind in your face.

Outspoken on politics before such was fashionable in jazz, Mingus delivered veritable manifestos for bass and band. For this release, the neo-Mingusites revisit politically tinged compositions, including the raucous revolutionary salute of "Haitian Fight Song" and the barrelhouse protest of "Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me." "Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters" (aka "Meditations on Integration"), with its wide swings from elation to dread, is as emotionally sweeping a composition as jazz has produced; it’s pure Mingus and evocatively delivered. The previously unreleased "It Was a Lonely Day in Selma" – 1965 vintage Mingus band with Jaki Byard and Charles McPherson – is an important addition to the Mingus oeuvre.

Politics isn’t everything, however. Along with the lusty blues of "Pussy Cat Dues," there are Mingus’ sadly beautiful tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and his rarely heard "Little Royal Suite," a quarter-hour dedication to trumpeter Roy Eldridge, recorded only once before.

You can complain that the band lacks the unpredictable originality of Mingus sidekicks such as Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. But if you miss out on the band that delivers Mingus by way of Randy Brecker, John Stubblefield, Seamus Blake, John Hicks and Vincent Herring (to name a few), your musical world will only be poorer for your discernment.

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