After being nominated for a handful of Grammys on their past studio records, the Mingus Big Band finally captured the award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album of 2011 with this, their first live outing, recorded on New Year’s Eve in 2008. Aside from the holiday, the evening’s program was centered around Mingus songs that were popular a half-century before — an easy exercise, since the late ’50s were an astonishingly fertile period in the late composer-bassist’s career. Organized and guided by his spouse, Sue Mingus, the band’s consistently high standard stems from its ability to cut to the chase and unearth the palpable essence of one or another of Mingus’s many virtues. On the opening “Gunslinging Bird” (for Charlie Parker, of course), the band ripples with the ominous sense of imminent explosion that was a Mingus trademark; yet even when they hit a toe-tapping groove, Mingus’s distinctive charts have the horns surging and submerging like cavorting dolphins.
The ultra-obscure “New Now Know How” (so-called because of its thorny time signature) is highlighted by a high-wire trumpet squall between Randy Brecker and Kenny Rampton. The title of “Bird Calls” describes the music exactly, with the horns in a squawk, flit and scamper mode; ditto “Cryin’ Blues,” which weeps with the honey-drippin’ ambiance of a Crescent City speakeasy (or bordello) courtesy of Rampton and trombonist Ku-Umba Frank Lacy donning their mutes and blowing their blues.
Interesting how much Mingus honored his brethren during this mid-20th century period. In addition to a Parker paean, there is “Open Letter to Duke,” a plush, ambitious suite (shortened down to seven minutes here) that pays homage to the sophistication of Ellington and adds space and special context for the soloists (like tenor Wayne Escoffery) the way Duke did for his members. And there is the iconic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” for Lester Young, unfortunately marred by the inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics, sung by Lacy, which dulls the intimacy and overwhelms the subtlety of the song.
Another signal virtue of the Mingus catalogue is the swinging counterpoint, equally steeped in the emotions of blues, gospel and jazz, back when it was the nation’s preeminent dance music. You hear it on the classic, “Moanin’,” kicked off by the superb female baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian, who adds a spirited second solo later in the tune. And you hear it on the rabble-rousing “Song For Orange,” played as the calendar was flipping into another year, featuring Brecker punching out phrases, bass trombonist Earl McIntyre doing the low-down and dirty, altoist Douglas Yates changing the pace with slippery, squirrelly segments, and pianist Dave Kikoski gliding his arpeggios back into the counterpointed groove, until the entire 14-piece band is aiming to levitate the room. In these troubled times, the steadily expanding legacy of Mingus’s oeuvre remains an abiding solace — and further elongates the potential for a kick-ass good time.