The superlative "best big band in America" doesn’t inspires much awe these days. Big bands still bring to mind old guys in matching jackets playing anesthetizing arrangements of "Moonlight Serenade" at the VFW hall.
But when you’re talking about the Mingus Big Band - the confederation of musicians dedicated to performing the music of the late bassist-composer Charles Mingus - you’re talking about another beast all together. Defying all stereotypes, this ensemble of today’s top players plays Mingus the way Mingus would have wanted it: hot, tight, full of love and anger, and fully dedicated to the music. It’s easy to imagine the composer’s spirit there in the studio, exhorting the musicians for more, cursing them, goading them, whipping up the passion that possessed him throughout his too-short life.
A new MBB disc is always cause for celebration. Tonight At Noon ... Three of Four Shades of Love
(Dreyfus 36633) is a celebration itself - full of moods, contradictions, sudden shifts in time and tempo, and of course perfectly executed music. An assortment of guests and a second ancillary ensemble on four beautiful tracks make it an especially special occasion.
The group and its musical director, Mingus’ widow, Sue, reach deep into the archives for these 10 tracks, presumably because they wanted to show how much more great stuff there was out there to explore. As the subtitle suggests, the theme is love. But it’s Mingus Love: furious love, dark love, dangerous love, devil love. The opening track, "Love is a Dangerous Necessity," for example, is edgy, unsettled, suggesting risky, impulsive action - not the first ideas that come to mind why you think "love song," but oddly and completely appropriate after all is said and done.
"Noon Night," taken from Mingus’ posthumously recorded magnum opus, Epitaph
, introduces the new Charles Mingus Orchestra, an 11-piece ensemble that includes guitar, bassoon, French horn and bass clarinet along with the brass, winds and rhythm. Arranged by the great Gunther Schuller, "Noon Night" has a mellow, Ellingtonian sound, but also characteristic Mingus urgency. "Tonight at Noon," the flip-side of "Noon Night," again features the orchestra with guest drummer Jeff Tain Watts. It’s hotter, more confused and looser than the previous track, with exciting solos by Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Alex Foster on alto. "Eclipse" pairs Adam Rogers’ guitar with Michael Rabinowitz’ bassoon in a lovely samba that builds as gradually as the moon moving through the sky, and with equally dramatic results. "Invisible Lady" features another of the many great joys of the disc: lyrics written and sung by Elvis Costello, who’s a huge Mingus fan, of course. He’s a great addition to the orchestra and deepens the tune. This is no simple song in AABA form, but a composition full of changes and themes that would be a challenge for musicians to make sense of; the band and Costello accomplish the task neatly. Trombonist Conrad Herwig also takes a masterful extended solo in the middle.
The big band takes over for the rest of the disc, swinging to perfection on "Passions of a Woman Loved," with many tempo changes, multiples layers and touches of both Ellington and the circus - in other words, pure Mingus. "Sweet Sucker Dance" is a bittersweet ballad lead by tenor player Seamus Blake. It is also one of Mingus’ last pieces. Diagnoses with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) in the ’70s, he was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair at the end of his life, but he still composed, singing this number into a tape recorder. "Devil Woman," on the other hand, taken for Mingus’ 1961’s blues-gospel album Oh Yeah?
is dirty, gritty, shameless. "Love’s Fury" begins like the soundtrack to a film noir classic, but it settles into a lush, lovely mood when baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber and pianist David Kikoski take over.
If you had to pick one work of music that stands as Mingus’ most enduring masterpieces, many would select his 1963 suite, Black Saint and Sinner Lady
, one of his earliest epic works. The Mingus Big Band deftly condenses the 40-minute original piece into a 17-minute arrangement that manages to capture all the sexiness, sultriness and sadness of the original. An apt finale, it features a little everything - freeness, ever-changing moods, beautiful melodies, and hot solos by seven band members.
As an historical figure, Mingus often seems a bundle of contradictions, but the man and his passions are clearly visible in his music, even in the titles he chose for his compositions. He wrote many titles off as nonsense, words he was forced to apply to his work, but there’s meaning in the contradictions. I can think of no other more deserving - and in need - of the enduring tribute and legacy of this band.