From the District Weekly - (5/06/09)
Kind of Blue. Time Out. Giant Steps. The Shape of Jazz to Come. Mingus Ah Um. For many music fans, the albums of 1959 define modern jazz. These records featuring Miles Davis’ modal breakthroughs, Brubeck’s unorthodox time signatures, Coltrane’s sheets of sound and Ornette Coleman’s limitless structure opened up a bottomless pit of possibility for every merchant of swing. Mingus Ah Um, a larger ensemble workout that took the reins from Duke Ellington and filtered them through an angrier pen, was driven by the distrust and undeniable sense of determination flowing out of upright bassist Charles Mingus.
The angry young man from Watts was his own worst enemy. Prone to onstage fights, he barreled his way through gigs with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and even Ellington—canned by all of them. Eventually, he built enough of a reputation to lead his own bands and dispensed abuse without fear of losing the gig. His book, Beneath the Underdog, is one of the greatest fictional autobiographies ever written—up there with Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues or Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues. Full of bullshit and bravado, Mingus dishes about everything—sexual conquests, emotional hang-ups and even the occasional recording date—with a deranged disregard. His behavior was so important to his music that the liner notes to his epic The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady were composed by his psychologist.
Mingus Ah Um, Mingus’ first release for Columbia Records, is a vast collection of styles, with oscillating harmonies in tribute to Lester Young on “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” the freight-train drive of “Boogie Stop Shuffle” and a two-step strut opening up “Jelly Roll.” The compositions and the octet’s instrumentation all grew out of Mingus’ earlier experiments known as the Jazz Workshop—an idealistic, at least in manifesto, co-op of composers shaping their ideas via committee. The Workshops, outside of the studio, were something altogether different, bringing Mingus’ temper to the fore; but the album, 45 minutes and nine tracks, was recorded in just two days.
Fifty years after the record’s release, the Mingus dynasty is alive and well. Headed by Mingus’ widow, Sue Graham Mingus, Jazz Workshop Inc. has built a fleet of bands dedicated solely to the work of Charles Mingus. Composed of some of the best musicians in New York (Jeff “Tain” Watts, Sean Jones, Orrin Evans), the unparalleled organization takes on the Mingus legacy, not preserved in nostalgic amber but where it might be now had he still been growling across the stage with trembling young-bloods. The organization doesn’t just capture his great compositions but also evokes his performance philosophy, with arrangements changing on the fly in response to the crowd or a particularly hot soloist (no word on whether any of the new members have taken to clobbering each other on stage).
At home in New York, the Mingus organization takes over a midtown basement every Monday night. The man holding down Mingus’ post is Boris Kozlov, who has been playing bass for the band since 1998. In New York, he gets to play Mingus’ actual instrument, which Kozlov nonchalantly describes as “just a good bass with a lotta spiritual value.” The key to keeping things fresh, says Kozlov, is a “multiplicity of approaches, being myself and trusting the guy next to me. If the tune doesn’t evolve, it gets to be strange and goes against the original purpose of the whole thing.”
MINGUS BIG BAND CERRITOS CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS 12700 CENTER COURT DR CERRITOS 90703 562.916.8501 CERRITOSCENTER.COM FRI 8PM $27.50-49