See a band credited to a deceased leader the Benny Goodman Orchestra, for instance and you think old, out-of-touch, lame, boring you get the picture. But that shouldn’t be a blanket assessment. The Mingus Big Band, for example, just doesn’t fit the bill. The group is everything those other groups known in the jazz world as “ghost bands” are not: young, plugged in, hip, exciting, essential.
So it is with the band’s latest disc, itself billed as “essential”, The Essential Mingus Big Band, in fact. The disc culls the best tracks from the group’s five discs, and the result is a rousing, spirited, living tribute to Charles Mingus, Mingus the composer, Mingus the bandleader, Mingus the performer. It’s all about Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, dig?
The 14-piece band, routinely tops polls in jazz magazines like Downbeat, including that magazine’s most recent reader’s poll big band category. It shows why over the course of the nine cuts on this disc. Sue Mingus, the widow of jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, formed the group in 1991. The idea was to keep Mingus’s music alive after his death in 1979. But, as the liner notes attest, the goal is not nostalgia. This is a working band, one that interprets Mingus’s charts in its own way, playing on the strengths of the individual soloists. This succeeds because of the singular vision of Sue Mingus, and also because her love and dedication have rubbed off on the players who pass through this group.
The group brought together to play this music is top notch, a who’s who of young and not-so-young jazz talent. Dave Kikoski, Ronnie Cuber, Ryan Kisor, Kenny Drew Jr., Randy Brecker — the list goes on. They bring an energy and grace to Mingus’s tunes that the composer surely would have loved. Some of Mingus’s best-known compositions are here, from “Haitian Fight Song” to “Moanin'” to “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”. While the albums containing Mingus’s own recordings of these tunes are essential in their own right, their presence in the CD racks make this no less essential.
While the rousing tunes are clear favorites, the slower material allows the band to stretch out and explore, something it does with much zest. “Self Portrait in Three Colors” in particular is such a tune, a graceful blues that in the hands of the players shows Mingus’s music wasn’t all flash and verve.
Mingus always mixed a bit of politics with his blues (rendered quite ably on the fittingly titled MBB disc Blues and Politics, of course), and the group’s take on his “Fables of Faubus” is organized chaos at its best. Joined here with “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”, it rattles on like a protest meeting come to life. The tune, Mingus’s indictment of the conduct of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus during the Little Rock school integration, is as swinging a bit of politicking as you’re likely to find.
Elsewhere the group tears through “Eat That Chicken”, “Boogie Stop Shuffle”, and “Nostalgia in Times Square”. While any one or all of the band’s discs are worth owning (particularly Live in Time and Blues and Politics), the selection here leaves little room for quibbling. It shows a good cross-section not only of the band’s work but also of Mingus’s compositional range.
Most “ghost bands” are deadly serious about perfectly recreating their namesake’s songs, but the MBB always has played fast and loose with Mingus’s songs, interpreting the tunes in a playful manner. It is that playfulness that makes the Mingus Big Band so special. Sure, the players are magnificent, each solo seemingly better than the last. But it is the group’s energy that makes it clear they’re having as much fun as the listener.
The only thing missing here is Mingus himself, and believe me, he’s here in spirit. That word “spirit” in fact, sums up this disc, and is the reason why it is so good.