The Mingus Big Band has spent 15 years performing the composed legacy of Charles Mingus, the bass player and composer who died in 1979.

True to Mingus’s restless spirit and passion for authentic in-the-moment creativity, the Big Band eschew mere recreations of past glories and inject the sense that, at least occasionally, they are flirting with chaos, in spite of their regular gigs (this date at Ronnie Scott’s ended a short UK tour, and they have a weekly residency in New York).

Mingus was a magisterial jazz composer who, like his influence Duke Ellington, spun the legacy of Afro-American music into a glittering compositional edifice.

This 14-piece band has grabbed the essential features by the neck, delivering the finger-breaking lines, sensuous melodies and dramatic tempo changes with spot-on virtuosity.

The opening “Boogie Stop Shuffle” set the tone – a simple but forceful riff ends in angularity, and the blues-based solos dart from medium lope to impossibly fast. As MC and alto saxophonist Craig Handy pointed out, the “Spider Man” theme really is almost identical, especially when sung in gravely voice by Frank Lacy, band character and trombonist.

Mingus’s political commitment was referenced by the sarcastic horns of “Fables of Faubus” and the refrain “tell me someone who’s ridiculous” updated to include George W. Bush.

The commitment to revealing the rough edges of a workshop came from last-minute stand-in Geoff Gascoyne rehearsing the tricky bowed bass intro to “Isobel’s Table Dance”. With an occasional whispered cue from the drummer, he sailed through his bass feature with bravado, even hinting at the thumping bass tone of the master.

Ironically, Mingus rarely got the chance to work with a band of this size and, when he did, he was messed around by his record company, so the product was half-cocked.

This band delivers the finished article with expertise – important on the newly discovered and labyrinthine “The Children’s Hour of Dream” – but individual flair remains, with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery (furry toned and oblique on the slow-burning “Nostalgia in Times Square”) and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin
the highlights.

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