The 14-strong Mingus Big Band has been celebrating the great bassist/composer’s emotionally charged legacy since 1991. Personnel may change – there were a couple of new faces at tonight’s gig – but, directed on stage by bassist Boris Kozlov, they navigate the devious structures and shifting-sand rhythms with relative ease.
The set opened with the gospel-steeped bass riff of “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too”. Baritone sax added a nagging counterpoint and trumpet stabs stacked up on trombone moans. The structure is a simple blues, but soulful shouts and gospel cries create a seething, layered mesh bristling with energy and collective intent.
Kozlov has both the power and technique to celebrate the Mingus legacy, and at this gig his playing captured much of the original’s emotional range. His solos veer from dextrous, hard-edged fretwork to the singing arco bass that was a Mingus trademark. Occasionally, he gives direction by pointing his bow, but for the most part, he lays down the law with a firm-fingered walk, tough riff or strummed chord.
Mingus rarely got his hands on a big band – when he died in 1979, he left only a smattering of large-scale recordings – so a project like this has to add its own touches. At this gig, the band broke down to a sigh and came back with a roar, there was a free-form bash and an awkwardly spaced chase for the five saxophones – its conclusion, an all-in-it-together chorus, was a shimmering standout.
And the soloists pushed technique and self-expression to extremes in long, often unaccompanied improvisations. Highlights included trombonist Conrad Herwig caressing the melody of “Invisible Lady” then splaying notes with a velvet tone – a mournful phonic was a finishing touch – and pianist Helen Sung’s two-handed flourishes and twinkling lines.
The meat, though, was the experimental legacy and passion of the original. Mingus balanced righteous anger with sensuous desire, and often crammed the whole caboodle into a single extended work. This gig presented two such, a mid-set “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are Some Jive-Assed Slippers” and, for a finale, “So Long Eric”, written in 1964 for saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Here tempos change and harmonies swirl; passions rage, morph to the blues and then subside to a gentle strong-willed embrace.
It was a lovely gig, with strong feelings and few rough edges. All too soon it was over. And with no time left for an encore – this was the first of two houses – it felt as though the evening had just begun.
Until December 1, www.ronniescotts.co.uk