Mingus was the Rabelais of Jazz. An eccentric humanist who used his musical vocabulary to portray the realities of life as he knew it. A world filled with great sorrows, blunt speech and joyous abandon; excessive emotions measured in equal portions. Often troubled, frequently combative, but always inspiring. He brought something unique to improvised music. An ability to impart that Rabelaisian quality, and this was the genius of the man.
When the Wellington Mingus Ensemble came to town the essence of Mingus came with them. In showcasing his music they demonstrated that they understood the most important thing: the spirit underlying his music. The cries of delight when at particular phrases and the shouts of exaltation echoing through the sets, a collective sense of engagement, each exhorting the other on. This unerring wild enthusiasm gave the music a power that took it free of the charts. Mingus pieces are invariably greater than the sum of their parts.
The set list took us on a high-octane Mingus fuelled journey, with the familiar politically charged ‘Fables of Faubus’ and ‘The shoes of the fisherman’s wife are some jiveassed slippers’, bookended by his lessor known tunes. There are no poor compositions in the Charles Mingus’s songbook. The Ensemble (a sixteen piece band) is punchy, ebullient and confident. This sense of shared enterprise fed into the solos, as the support was always there. The bass work was particularly noteworthy as Mingus styled bass lines are quite unlike any others. Big ups to the baritone player as well, for making a unwieldily beast sing so heartily.
Charles Mingus occupies a unique place in the Jazz Pantheon and in Mingus bands like this, he has left us with a legacy which thankfully shows no sign of abating. His legacy is an interesting one and different to that of most Jazz musicians. While a Miles or a Bird tribute band will often be at pains to put distance between themselves and the original for fear of comparison, a Mingus tribute band will unashamedly embrace that Mingus feel. There is a rightness about this approach to Mingus, because what at first appears tangible has hidden corners. There is always a mysterious looseness which leaves you thinking. I’ve listened to this piece a hundred times before, but it always sounds different.
This is a great legacy for musicians and fans alike. He leaves behind so much more than his recorded output; it is as if these Mingus charts are inexhaustible. The music is full of contradictions; profoundly gospel-referencing passages, dripping with soul are suddenly overtaken by a brassy cacophony on the edge of free. Anyone who has listened to his Magnum Opus ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ or ‘The complete Town Hall concert’ (with Dolphy, Collette, Mariano, Sims and many others) will get this immediately. For Mingus-loving musicians, the desire to grab a piece of this quirky magic is overwhelming. The Wellington Mingus Ensemble has achieved that in spades.
What: The Wellington Mingus Ensemble
Saxes: Bryn van Vliet, Eilish Wilson, Jake Baxendale, Garam Jung, Oscar Laven Trumpets: Ben Hunt, Michael Costeloe, James Wisnesky, Daniel Windsor Trombones: Kaito Walley, Cameron Kidby, Julian Kirgan, Patrick Di Somma Piano: Ayrton Foote, Double Bass: Adrian Laird, Drums: Jacob Randall
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand 26th November 2014