2 March 2009



I don’t remember where I was when I heard JFK had died, but I do remember where I was when I heard Mingus had died. Mingus was that huge character in jazz history, famed for many things – his bass playing, his unrelenting and unforgiving personality, his conviction to the art. But mostly I love him for his blues-infested melodies. Those bliss-bomb charts that exude humour and emotions of all sorts, and that are never less than passionate. And for that demanding personality that drew such strength from his performers. Mingus was a monster of the art, and it’s my honour to attend his still-living big band. From beneath the underdog, let my children hear music. I lift my glass to Charles Mingus.

BTW, I once had a minor encounter with that power: a short and sharp cultural misunderstanding with Danny Richmond, Mingus’ long-term drummer. It’s enough to say that I’d come in contact with a force of nature, not to be toyed with. Not easy, not Adelaide, but I expect that’s part of the power that was Mingus.


It was a strange night for me. Hanging out around Circular Quay and the Rocks was pleasant and a mighty preparation for the night, with even some big ships in town to give a festive and international air. The Opera House was new experience, but I was none too impressed. We sat only four rows back, below the level of the stage, and between the PA bins. With no benefit from the PA, the sound was unbalanced and overly reverberant. Then the first band was sadly inappropriate: Ben Fink, once of the Whitlams, playing a sort of West Coast jazz-pop. His MySpace site says soul, but it wasn’t what I know as soul. God knows who booked him, and it was sad he accepted the gig. He was playing with excellent jazzers, Jonathon Zwartz, Toby Hall and Matt McMahon, but there’s only so much you can do with two chords. Sadly inappropriate, and thankfully short. I was thinking pugnacious Mingus would have punched him out. The Opera House also let down with no program, so I didn’t know the names of the players on the night. I’ve since found the list on the Net, but it was a disappointment at the time.

But the main set was as expected. A cool set of musicians, and a hot swinging bass starting it all with E’s flat A’s flat too. Mingus’ memorable melodies, regular solos of quirkiness and commitment and stylish capability. Each player offering a different personality. I was reading a CD cover on the way down to Sydney. Apparently, Mingus worried less about how his performers soloed than how they performed his charts. The exuberance and skills were certainly there. I hugely enjoyed and bopped along with the tunes, but it was partly from knowing the forms before. The bass was woofy, doubly so with bow. I lost lines on soloists when the band played behind fills, and the clarity of the section pieces suffered. I mentioned the personalities in the solos. Soloists came to the front for their features, and they approached them in such different ways, some with humour, others with technical restraint, others with emotive outpourings. I was going to mention some favoured soloists, but ended up listing the band. I particularly noticed Jaleel Shaw on alto, but there were others equally impressive. Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy provided extraverted (even Mingal) outpourings and also sang Fables of Faustus and Joni Mitchell’s words to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. Funnily enough, that bastion of pugnacious black pride, Mingus, was played by a white man with a Russian name, Boris Kozlov. I’ve always wondered how someone could take the Mingus role in this band, but he did it well, with technical facility and apt playing, and even taking the leader and MC role. They played E’s flat A’s flat too, Fables of Faustus, Self portrait in three colours, Open letter to Duke, Tension, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Moanin’ and an encore that I didn’t know. Apparently it’s the 50th anniversary year of the albums Blues and roots, Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Ah Um, so the band’s playing that era at the moment. I really haven’t done it justice with this report. It was a great show, there were huge roars of knowledgeable approval throughout, there was commitment and energy and fabulous tunes, and an authentic band to present the show. But big shows leave me feeling it’s all a bit impersonal, with everyone seated in neat rows (at least at jazz you can cough). But the very poor sound and the strange choice of starters and the rest had me walking out feeling not too much more excited than when I’d come in. As if the return to the Quay was uninterrupted by one of the best big bands in the world, and some of the most exciting music in the history of jazz.

The Mingus Big Band played at the Sydney Opera House. The players were: Keny Rampton, Alex Sipiagin, Tatum Greenblatt (trumpets), Wayne Escoffery, Araham Burton (tenor), Mark Gross, Jaleel Shaw (alto), Jason Marshall (baritone sax), Ku-umba Frank Lacy (trombones & vocals), Andy Hunter (trombone), Earl McIntyre (bass trombone & tuba), Donald Edwards (drums), Boris Kozlov (bass), Orrin Evans (piano), Sue Mingus (producer)

1 comment:

Sarah said...

The encore was "Song with Orange", and muchly more representative of their regular kinda stuff, (or, at least, the CDs I own!)