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Music Review: Mingus Big Band – Live at the Blue Note in Tokyo

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Under the artistic direction of Sue Mingus, wife of the late Charles Mingus (1922 – 1979), the fourteen piece Mingus Big Band is unique in many respects. Since 1991, the band has performed the music of Jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus in New York City. The band played first at the Fez under Time Cafe and, since 2004, at the Iridium Jazz Club, all while touring extensively in the United States and abroad. With almost fifty repertory members, the band operates like a formalized pick-up band, its membership made up of whichever fourteen members are available for a particular gig. This variegation of players has helped the Mingus Big Band keep its performances fresh and vital over the years.

In December of 2005, the Mingus Big Band played a week of concerts at the Blue Note Club in Tokyo. The final concert of that series, on New Year's Eve, resulted in the recording of this exciting big band Jazz set. For that not to have happened would have been a great loss to the world of Jazz music and to American music in general. On this CD is some of the finest Jazz compositions to come out of America, performed by fourteen of country's finest Jazz players.

In turns, this music swings and swirls, jitters and jives, rocks and rolls, races and slows, and does it all over again. At times, it's pure New York, with all the sense of traffic's rush and ramble, stop and start, motors revving and car horns shouting out. At other times, it sweeps through the Orient, the Far-East and the Middle-East, becoming at once distant and exotic. There is praise here too, sometimes ecstatic and sometimes pure Gospel, to rock the listener's soul. There are sound effects (a horse whinnies, birds sing), implicit visuals, and pure, wonderful music. It's a marvelous cascade of sound that fills the room and washes the listener away into some jazz fantasy. It's pure magic!

This is big music, symphonic in scale yet with all the heart and soul of American culture at it's deepest and most powerful. The music of Charles Mingus speaks of and to the American people, and the players of the Mingus Big Band give his music a powerful, evocative voice that speaks not just to America but to the world.

Even though each song on this release is as wonderful as the rest, I do have some favorites. "Ecclusiastics" is the only song in this set with words and it's also the longest at 10:33. A number with a certain Christian flavour and fervour, "Ecclusiastics" opens and closes with a Gospel-shouted spoken piece – you might even say sermon – featuring words from Ecclesiastes. The Preacher, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, brings to these ancient words all the energy needed to raise them up from a lovely poem to a power-packed exhortation to action. "Amen!" he says. Yes sir, amen!

Equal in every way to the exhortations of The Preacher, the music of "Ecclusiastics" is full, rich, and dramatic and reaches into the corners of American music, echoing Ellington, Charles, Copland, Grofé, and a dozen others, yet always speaking in a single voice and always in the voice of Mingus. It's something very special to hear.

"Prayer for Passive Resistance" is my other favourite. This song rocks with a drive that stirs the heart and moves the feet. It's as much Rock & Roll as it is Jazz, shouting out of rebellion and resistance as it grabs at the listener's soul. This is tough music, the kind you heard in The Blackboard Jungle or in Fifties detective movies. It's big and symphonic in scope, shifting in tempo and swinging from mood to mood as it carries the listener through the imagined dusky city streets of America.

While I mention two songs that especially appeal to me, every performance on this release is of the same superior calibre. Each listener may have different favourites, but there's unlikely to be a big difference between the favourite and the next song down the list. In my opinion, no collector of great American Jazz should be without a copy of this CD in his or her collection.

This album's jewel-case insert includes interesting and informative liner notes by producer Sue Mingus. Reading these notes brings a certain historical perspective to this music and the Mingus Big Band.

You can find out more about the Mingus Big Band at Charles Mingus: The Official Site, the Iridium Jazz Club website, or at Wikipedia. You may also find it worthwhile and interesting to look up Charles Mingus and Sue Mingus.

Live at the Blue Note in Tokyo
Mingus Big Band
Sue Mingus Music
8 tracks

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