Before making my way to The Jazz Standard for one of their critically acclaimed Mingus Mondays, I spent what seemed like an eternity scouring downtown Manhattan for a public bathroom. At my wits end, I ended up getting into an heated argument with a Pret A Manger cashier who would only give me the restroom key if I purchased a banana. Needless to say, when I arrived at the venue with a banana in hand and a Pret A Manger receipt in my wallet, I felt somewhat defeated.
Upon entering The Jazz Standard, the host herded us down a flight of stairs with photographs of jazz legends illuminating the way. We were led into a long, maroon colored room as busboys scrambled to prepare the tables. As I was seated in the dimly lit hall, I was astounded at how relatively young the audience was. Not only did I see a good amount of young adults present, I was amazed to see toddlers talking excitedly to their parents about the show. I looked out onto the dozen seats on stage that would soon be occupied by the Grammy Award-winning Mingus Big Band.
The Mingus Big Band is a 14 piece jazz ensemble that was founded in 1991 to celebrate the music and life of the late Charles Mingus. A musical genius and virtuoso, Mingus was a jazz composer and bassist who earned his nickname “the angry man of jazz” for both his dominating 6’1’’ frame and his verbal and physical outbursts on stage. The band, which is under the artistic direction of Mingus’ widow, Sue, has had seven of their ten recordings nominated for Grammys. Having never really heard a Mingus tune in its entirety, I was hoping for this concert to be an educational experience. The audience helped themselves to a light dinner before the musicians took to the stage, but that was far from the focus of the night. Eventually, once everyone settled down and the tables were cleaned, the band was formally introduced and took their seats.
The first tune, entitled “Haitian Fight Song,” is just one of the many examples that night of Mingus’ interest with integrating political themes into his music. The piece began with an especially long and emotional solo from bassist Boris Kozlov, whose bending of notes echoed cries of sadness all throughout the room. Then as he laid down the bass line of the tune, drummer Donald Edwards came in with a light yet persistent ride pattern. A trumpet soon joined in, softly playing a melody line characterized by fast repeating triplets, resembling a call to arms. Gradually, the lower brass and saxophones layered the melody at different points on top of the trumpet, creating a hectic, blaring response to the original phrase. After crescendoing into a final crash, the band died out except for the rhythm section and baritone saxophonist, who soloed for two choruses, followed by pianist David Kikoski. Kikoski even managing to quote a bit of the Christmas tune “Sleigh Ride” into his solo, prompting laughter from both his band-mates and the audience. The band then returned to the head of the form, with bass and drums vamping for a few bars until the trumpet sneakily reiterated the melody. With even more energy than before, the brass instruments all played piercing and powerful backgrounds as soprano saxophonist, Alex Foster soloed. There is suddenly a sharp decrescendo leaving only the bass line. Foster then gets out of his seat and signals the coda to the rest of the band.
The piece was a truly electric way to start off the set and highlighted both Mingus’ compositional skills and his bass playing. The hectic, fast paced nature of this first piece was what I have associated with Charles Mingus, but as the night progressed I began realized the diversity and nuance of Mingus’ discography.
Saxophonist, Alex Foster then took the microphone and gave a roadmap of what the night would entail. He discussed their latest 2015 project “Mingus Sings”, a collection of pieces by Mingus that inspired other musicians enough to write lyrics for them, and that he wanted the night to be one in which people saw a different side to Mingus other than the “angry man of jazz”. The band then jumped into their next tune, “Dizzy Profile.”
Contrary to the shrill, forceful timbres present in the earlier tune, “Dizzy Profile” showcased swelling, muted brass that mimicked a vocalized quality. Featuring trombonist, Ku’umba Frank Lacy on vocals, the never-before-heard piece was in remembrance of bebop trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie. With lyrics such as, “So remember now that crazy sound that he will begin to understand a storyline again,” the lyrics questioned how to make once revolutionary ideas appreciated again. While the song started off at a slow tempo after the first time through the melody, metric modulation occured, which is an often-used technique by Mingus (more accurately described as tempo modulation, metric modulation is the shifting of the beat from one rhythmic value to another). Lacy’s unique, gravelly voice suited the music extremely well, especially with the interesting progressions in Mingus’ music.
The next piece was titled “Don’t Let It Happen Here,” and was inspired by the writings of anti-fascist German pastor, Martin Niemoller, and was in response to the election of Richard Nixon. The song, warning against remaining politically apathetic, featured trumpet and trombone that both set the tone of a military march as Lacy recited a poem by Neimoller:
“…Then they came Then one day they came and they took the people of the Jewish faith, and I said nothing because I was had no faith left … Then one day they came and they took me. And I could say nothing because I was guilty as they were for not speaking out and saying that all men have a right to freedom.”
The lower brass then played a military-esque line as the trumpet played a wailing and gut-wrenching melody in the high register. Bass and trombone created an interesting timbre as they played a hip, syncopated vamp together followed by the rest of the band, turning the military march into a chaotic scene of longing and loss. As it quickly evolved into a jazzy chaos, the trombonist played an extremely energetic solo as the brass interjected with staccato backgrounds. The section ended forcefully, followed by a soft recapitulation, if you will, of the military march coupled by the wailing trumpet. The lower instruments accompanied Lacy with a mesmerizing drone as he recited a variation of the poem, and the song ended on a powerful chord with blaring horns.
The next piece, entitled “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too,” showed the vast range of compositional techniques Mingus used in his big band pieces. The tune started off with a fast paced bass line by Koslov, as both piano and saxophone enter playing the melody, with the pianist playing slightly behind the beat. This purposeful choice left the audience somewhat confused for a split second, and grabbed an incredible amount of attention as the piano then lines up with the saxophone and more instruments come in. In this piece the melody became increasingly complex as two counter-melodies were layered onto the original melody. Lacy then entered with vocals, followed by the solo section. I was blown away by this composition in particular by the way the drums interacted with the soloists and the piano, responding to them and making hits in unison.
Finally, the set ended with “Baby Take A Chance With Me,” a swooning piece composed during Mingus’s earlier years. The employment of the brass in this tune (as with each song in the set) was entirely different from any of the previous tunes, and was a great way to close out the concert.
The concert was an incredibly entertaining experience and was successful in allowing the audience to explore a different facets of Mingus other than his well known tunes like “Moanin’”. The arrangement was stellar and the musicians all gave energetic and virtuosic performances. Although I was originally skeptical of whether such a confined setting was the best way to experience Mingus’ works, I found that it provided a unique and engaging intimacy between the audience and the music. Though I must say, even though I thoroughly enjoyed listening to all the tunes, there were a tiny handful of what I thought of to be missteps (one that stood out to me in particular was a considerable stretch of glaring dissonance in the “Don’t Let It Happen Here” trombone solo). While the horns were talented in their own right, the persistence and prevalence of the rhythm section had me captivated for the entire night. Although I mentioned this previously, the musicians were really listening to each other and it was amazing to hear the conversations between the different instruments, either how the drummer and pianist comp in unison or the soloist takes a snare drum pattern and develops it into a phrase.
Leading up to my experience at The Jazz Standard, I thought it odd to go to such an energetic performance on a Monday evening, but as I left the venue feeling both relaxed and satisfied. I now realize that there’s nothing better than a little bit of blues to rid yourself of your Monday blues.