June 2006

Mingus Big Band
at the Toronto Jazz Festival
June 24, 2006Main StageToronto
A Massing of Mingus
by Dave Barnes with photos by Roger Humbert
Charles Mingus remains with us in substance and style through the ensembles that carry forward his musical legacy. The 14-piece Mingus Big Band featured at the Toronto Jazz Festival is based in New York City and gets to pick the very best of local musicians, some 40 in all that rotate through the chairs to keep the momentum.
Opening with a rousing version of "E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too" we wasted no time in launching into some serious and extended solos. First up was Lauren Sevian giving us a blistering baritone sax solo taking time to dip into the delicious lower register of this instrument. No chance to breathe because trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy is front and centre with an attack, energy and invention that has to be seen to be believed. It is hard to believe that a trombone slide can be manipulated that fast. Alex Sipiagin on trumpet immediately took control and led us to unexpected territory spun out of thin air. George Colligan's forceful and authoritative piano gave over to a ferociously fast journey around the drum kit with Johnathan Blake. A few minutes into the set and already you had to have your wits about you to follow the action.
Ku-umba Frank Lacy
When bandleader Craig Handy then stood up to wish with deadpan humour goodnight to the audience you could almost forgive him. This is a band that gets through an amazing amount of music in a hurry.

It takes a special kind of cool to navigate these complexly arranged charts at a blistering pace and still look completely relaxed about it. Well, at least until your solo comes up, at which point flat out exuberance is just fine.

Sensing that things had to be taken down a notch, if only for the audience's sake, it was time to lead into "Meditations", appropriately with Joe Martin taking the melodic introductions on bass and featuring some finger acrobatics and bass harmonics.

Keeping with the often programmatic style of much of Mingus' music, we rode the Jazz waltz into an almost circus calliope theme and back to suggestive discordant images and then via swing passages to the main theme. Are we doing medieval chant or Stan Kenton big band charts? It is easy to lose track. This is collapsed history set to music.

Pianist Colligan took the first solo and we went journeying with eastern harmonics and pedal down passages that created a cathedral setting of quiet against a backdrop of the band's pulse. An astonishing alto sax solo from Jaleel Shaw led us into some reverb-enhanced flute voicings to take us out.

The band has extended and updated the original arrangements. Nobody should imagine that this is a mere tribute band. Nor do the members merely trade on the Mingus name. To the extent that anybody could, this is extending the art through the continued interpretation of the music of Charles Mingus.

When not tearing through trombone parts, Lacy gets to show off a romantic and soulful baritone voice, in this case with "Baby Take a Chance on Me". More masterful solos on this tune, this time from Martin and Shaw with bass and alto sustaining the ballad mood with impeccable grace.

A new CD is on the way from the Mingus Big Band, a live recording done in Tokyo. Featured on this recording is the well-named "Bird Calls" featuring some more of the programmatic touch with the front line sax section doing a credible and very hip set of bird calls that breaks into a high speed chase. First up, Seamus Blake gets an extended tenor sax solo and then we swoop into a fearsome bout of sax cutting with the front line now trading licks at high tempo until the birds return and give us a synchronous vibrato to bring the fun to an end.

It was great to see the immensely talented Seamus Blake, the lone Canadian in the group, get some extra exposure as he took the melody throughout Joni Mitchell's soulful ballad "Sweet Sucker Dance". Sweet indeed.

Johnathan Blake

Craig Handy
Mingus had few tunes that became generally well known. Mostly the themes are too complex to hum. "Haitian Fight Song" is easily recalled. It begins with the trombone barking out the melody but we are soon into a series of solos that expose some of the deep reservoirs of talent in the band. Leader Craig Handy's soprano sax solo danced through the changes with intense heat leaving trombonist Conrad Herwig nowhere to go but cool. A study in control and contrasts, this was a masterful solo of great musical depth, making leaps in register between sonically fascinating way stations. Stunning.

Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre quite fittingly got the last say. As a distinguished member of a band so rich in talent and so capable of traversing Jazz history from Dixieland to free blowing we had to wait until the end to hear his solo. But he did get to provide the band's encore performance. With wit and style he gave an intrigued audience a tuba solo to remember.

Whether via CD or a trek to New York and their regular Tuesday gig at the Iridium, this is a band to savour. Toronto welcomes their return.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Dave Barnes
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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