Review: Mingus Big Band at Ronnie Scott's

Mingus Big Band
(23rd October at Ronnie Scott's. Review by Peter Vacher)

Just to watch a big band setting up, adjusting microphones and stands, checking their music, exchanging banter and sorting themselves out on Ronnie’s stage is enough to set the pulses racing. Well, it is for me and as it turns out for this house-full audience too. Add in the special aura of the Mingus Big Band itself, with its unique dedication to a single cause allied to unfettered creativity, and you sense that huge rewards await you. The continuing validity of Mingus’s music is not in doubt and boy, does that come across when this band finally gets underway.

Leader Boris Kozlov set the tone with his supple bass line on Jump, Monk, trumpeter Philip Harper, short and compact like a young Roy Eldridge, topping and tailing the performance with lengthy, vivid solos. When the ensemble surged in it was to launch altoist Abraham Burton in turn, his extended solo a slow burner initially before he accelerated into fervency, trumpet riffs piling in. And that’s often MBB’s way, deceptive calm at first, with a few succulent ensemble passages and then the kind of solo playing that reminds you of just how challenging this music can be. More of the same followed on Pithecanthropus Erectus with its sweet sax opening, long trumpet solo from newcomer Tatum Greenblatt and sudden raucous shouts from trombonist Clark Gayton, the ebb and flow of its dynamics as striking as ever.

Kozlov introduced Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’s elegiac farewell to Lester Young, as their most performed piece. Yes, to that, but this version topped any other that I’ve witnessed from this band, principally because of Craig Handy’s wonderfully spacious, unaccompanied introductory extemporisation. All tenor life was there, you might say, from sublime, almost laconic ballad passages through to high shrieks and gutturals rasps before the band played that familiar, melancholy theme. Passions of a Woman Loved was calm, with pianist Helen Sung’s neat solo and Brandon Wright’s soprano featured over Kozlov’s arco bass before Freedom climaxed the set, Wayne Escoffrey’s tenor rant a model of creative intensity and storming brilliance, Ronnie Cuber’s gruff baritone sax rumbling beneath. Of course, its reiterated vocal chant of ‘freedom’ was just another way of reminding us of just how Mingus’s enduring message matters.

Early support – and what an inadequate description that seems to be – was offered by pianist Gareth Williams heading a scratch trio of fellow-pros, viz virtuoso bassist Laurence Cottle and drummer Dave Ohm. As ever, Williams impressed, bluesy behind his own vocal on Come Rain or Come Shine but suitably volcanic on McCoy Tyner’s Inner Glimpse which he cited as ‘repetitive but amazing’. Williams remains underrated but shouldn’t be. He’s the real deal.

The Mingus Big Band continue in residency at Ronnie Scott's till Sat 26th.

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