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In Mingus' Memory 

The legacy of legendary jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus lives on in the Mingus' 80th Birthday Tribute Orchestra.

Here's a paradox, one of many, about the protean jazz bassist Charles Mingus: He's considered one of the greatest of all jazz composers, a close second to Ellington in many people's book, and yet his material is hardly covered at all by other musicians. Too hard, perhaps? Well the music of, for instance, Wayne Shorter and Charlie Parker isn't a walk in the park, but go into any modern jazz club and you're 10 times more likely to hear them than Mingus' "Ecclusiastics." I can't recall ever hearing one of Mingus' pieces other than "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" played in a New Orleans club.

Fortunately, there's a cadre of New York musicians, organized by the bassist's indefatigable widow, Sue Mingus, that specializes in the man's thorny scores. They are best known when presented as the 17-piece Mingus Big Band, and indeed this was the band originally touted to appear at Jazz Fest 2002. In reality, what will be presented is the 11-piece Charles Mingus 80th Birthday Orchestra.

This substitution could be distressing to anyone who's heard the Big Band, especially those of us who've experienced this amazing ensemble at its weekly gig in New York City's Time Cafe. Imagine the cream of NYC players -- Randy Brecker, John Stubblefield, Ronnie Cuber and dozens of other lesser-known but savvy musicians -- playing cutting-edge charts with room for collective improvisation reminiscent of New Orleans' brass bands. It's a potent brew of humor, danger and explosive power.

Nevertheless, there's no reason to doubt that the Orchestra, while not as rowdily mammoth as the Big Band, won't be superb. The band's ranks are culled from the same pool of gifted players and the same arrangers, including Sy Johnson, Michael Mossman and the venerated historian/composer/arranger Gunther Schuller. Though it hasn't toured much, the Orchestra had a weekly gig for about a year at the NYC club City Hall, an engagement that was victimized by fallout from the Sept. 11 tragedy.

To check out the Orchestra before its Jazz Fest set, there's a brand-new Mingus Big Band CD on the Dreyfus label, Tonight at Noon, which features the Orchestra on four cuts. The CD also includes Elvis Costello singing his inscrutable lyric to "Invisible Lady" and a Big Band reworking of "Sweet Sucker Dance" from Joni Mitchell's soporific Mingus LP. To these ears the orchestral performances are lovely, coloristic and refined, but certainly tamer than the Big Band volcano. The four tracks didn't evoke memories of hearing the big band live as much as conjure comparisons to big bands led by Maria Schneider and Gil Evans.

Michael Rabinowitz, who plays tenacious bebop on the bassoon with both the orchestra and the big band, explained the difference between the two groups this way in a recent phone interview: "The main strength of the Orchestra is presenting instruments that you wouldn't ordinarily hear playing jazz, taking them out of the closet. Mingus had a classical side that he didn't get to showcase too often, and though he didn't write the charts we play, we try and capture his adventurous spirit in this direction, to present his music in a slightly different context."

In a way, this reflects the gentrification of jazz that has slowly taken place steadily over the last 50 years, with jazz moving out of the dives and whorehouses into concert halls and academia. Duke Ellington is now being pushed not as the greatest jazz composer (which apparently isn't enough for some commentators), but as "America's greatest composer." Jazz is now "America's Classical Music." And Mingus is being promoted, in some quarters at least, as a classical composer who happened to make his living playing jazz. It's a double-edged sword: by pursuing classical connections one gains prestige in some circles, not to mention high-paying gigs. But it's also something of a slight to the jazz coterie, saying that being great jazz is not enough. Perhaps the best attitude is not to ponder the jazz and classical quotient and just think about it as challenging music.

Coming out of the classical armoire for the Mingus Orchestra are bassoonist Rabinowitz, French horn player Bobby Routch and bass clarinetist Doug Yates. In a more familiar vein are trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, a wildman who's featured on several of the big band's recordings; sax and flute man Craig Handy, a brilliant soloist known by some as a Herbie Hancock sideman; electric guitarist David Gilmore, a master of rock and odd-meter signatures; and Boris Kaslow, who has the honor of playing the bass with which Mingus created his amazing legacy. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, drummer Ali Jackson and tenorman Seamus Blake round out the lineup for a show that's guaranteed to be one of the most sophisticated sets of this year's Jazz Fest.

click to enlarge The classical side of late jazz pioneer Charles Mingus comes to the forefront in the Mingus Orchestra.
  • The classical side of late jazz pioneer Charles Mingus comes to the forefront in the Mingus Orchestra.
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