By Michael Katz
UCLA’s Royce Hall had a nightclub-like feel to it Friday night, as a modest but enthusiastic crowd gathered on a rainy night to hear the Mingus Dynasty, a septet of New York based players exploring the oeuvre of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. Most of the group are veterans of the 16 piece Mingus Big Band, which is widely recorded and a more familiar brand. But the Dynasty, with the young Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen joining the fray, provided a spirited voice to tunes that were originally presented by Mingus’s smaller groups.
The opening number, “Just For Laughs,” was recorded on the 1975 Changes One album as “Remember Rockefeller at Attica,” but the re-titling fits the theme, which is bright and vigorous, allowing the band members to establish themselves. First Cohen and then Alex Foster on alto sax did some aggressive riffing, with Frank Lacy sliding harmonic counter tones underneath them on his trombone. Drummer Donald Edwards and bassist (and co-leader) Boris Kozlov kept things sizzling behind the front line.
Pianist David Kikoski and Seamus Blake laid back in the opening number, but Kikoski began “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers” with an extended and beautiful piano interlude, setting the stage for Blake on tenor sax. Blake has a muscular, robust, style. He’s able to explore the full range of the instrument with a melodic instinct that fits in well with the compositions of Mingus. The ninety-plus minute set allowed everyone to stretch out, and given how little we see of these players, it was a gift the audience gladly accepted.
Frank Lacy provided the vocals for the group. His growling, bluesy voice complements his slide trombone nicely. He took the lead on “Lonesome Woman Blues,” but had plenty of help. Cohen backed up Lacy’s vocals with a muted horn, then Lacy picked up his trombone for a rampaging solo, followed by the band’s other co-leader, Foster, on alto and then Cohen again with the muted trumpet.
It was no surprise that ‘Haitian Fight Song” would be the highlight of the evening. Boris Kozlov started it out with a serpentine bass solo that wove its way into the familiar surging bass line. From there the front line took over, first Lacy, then Blake, then Alex Foster on soprano sax and Cohen on trumpet, the four of them providing a pulsating harmonized rendition of one of Mingus’s most familiar themes. Foster’s terrific soprano solo was augmented by Kikoski on piano. Kozlov had another slow building bass solo, and Lacy swept back in on the slide trombone to bring things to a rousing conclusion.
The spotlight turned to Blake for “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” Mingus’ lamentation on the passing of tenor great Lester Young. Blake delivered a soulful rendition, gently weaving from the instrument’s lower depths to the upper octaves. Lacy stepped in with his interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics. It was a nice contrast to Blake’s tenor work, though the lyrics lost a little in his gruff reading, compared to Mitchell’s own version or Mark Murphy’s memorable cover on the LP Bop For Kerouac.
Lacy was back in more hospitable surroundings with “Don’t Let It Happen Here,” the last scheduled number. He voiced Mingus’ poem about saying nothing while others are being persecuted, while the band simmered behind him. The political sentiments jibed easily with current circumstances, and the Royce Hall crowd was behind him. The band had a round of solos, most notably trumpeter Cohen. They left to a standing ovation for the elongated single set. Their encore, “Consider Me,” was based on Mingus’ collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes. It seemed a little subdued – by the end the audience didn’t quite seem to know it was over, or want it to be, but nobody walked away feeling cheated.
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In my preview article for the concert, I looked back at a Mingus performance in Madison, Wisconsin, in the mid-seventies, and related Sue Mingus’s story that Charles had received the key to the city while performing at the Good Karma, a small club in the basement of a health food store. I mentioned that the mayor at the time was a youthful Paul Soglin, elected on the tide of the anti-war movement in Madison. I wrote, “it’s not surprising that Soglin would have considered Mingus a kindred spirit, whatever his level of jazz sophistication.” I received a gracious letter from Mayor Soglin, (he was elected for the third time in 2011) and here are some of his comments:
I was introduced to Mingus’ work by Ben Sidran who worked at Discount Records on State Street.
He pointed me to “Mingus Ah Um,” a lot of Eric Dolphy, and other Blue Note artists. In February, 1966 I was fortunate to attend a John Coltrane performance at the UW Union Theater.
It was a great honor to give Mingus the key to the city, especially since we shared the same birthday, April 22nd.
When he played Madison he stayed with Ben and Judy Sidran and that night, as Ben relates in his book “A Life in The Music,” Mingus held up the key and asked, “OK, where is the lock?”
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Finally, it was fun to read the comments (posted on iRoM) from folks who had attended those Good Karma dates. Jazz, at its best, is a communal experience, and it was heartening to read how Mingus’ performances in 1974 had left such an imprint. Play on!
Photo by Brian Hatton courtesy of UCLA Live.
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