"Wham, Bam," indeed! Compared to the best performances by the late Charles Mingus, this effort has the air of more orthodox big bands like the ones led by Clarke/Boland and Jones/Lewis, which is also to say the best. McCoy Tyner's band on a good night has included some of the same performers featured on this live release, and Dave Kikoski is a somewhat Tynerish pianist, but for all that, the Mingus truth burns through.
The drive of the music can be fearsome, as on Ronnie Cuber's opening chart, "Wham, Bam!" Cuber sounds magnificent, on his baritone solo and leading ensemble entries at climaxes in trumpeter Alex Sipiagin's own red-hot solo. This set was recorded in December, and the drummer certainly warmed himself up.
All of the original compositions are by Mingus. Boris Kozlov's arrangement of the relatively unfamiliar "Opus Four" features a mighty brass ensemble. Frank Lacy's trombone reminds me of when I saw him, along with trumpeter Eddie Henderson, both on this date, with Tyner. They didn't have quite the same tear-up opportunities as this more recent winter night in Japan afforded. And this was a different band, too.
The impassioned "Celia," at medium tempo, does not let any cool in. Steve Slagle's arrangement has his fellow altoist Craig Handy making lots of rhythmic figures, before the obligatory Johnny Hodges passage and a finish nearer Jackie McLean. "Bird Calls" comes from the heated aviary, taking the title wholly literally before the saxophones turn back into saxophones, first Cuber's big baritone, then Seamus Blake's tenor, and after Handy, the darker-hued alto of Abraham Burton. Then there's a lot of swapping half-choruses, precision treated as a challenge, followed by Kikoski and bassist Kenny Davis, and eventually bird-like, quiet sounds again.
Davis opens "Meditations" playing arco before the ostinato figure begins and Handy's flute flies on top, with at times ingenious harmonisations from the saxophones. Burton's gradually more emotional alto doesn't forget the theme. The original topic of meditation was a pair of wire-cutters, and an appropriate urgency is applied to the music.
John Stubblefield was also in the Tyner band I saw those years back, but he was present in Tokyo only in spiritand the arrangement of "Prayer for Passive Resistance," whose subsequent performance he had discussed on his deathbed. Wayne Escoffery plays with controlled heat before softening down beautifully, coming across as not so wild a player as Stubblefield.
Kozlov's "Free Cell Block F" reminds me to ask whether Handy has the prettiest flute sound in jazz. Conrad Herwig articulates his cooler trombone sound very cleanly in exchanges with Lacy, who re-emerges on Sy Young's chart of "Ecclusiastics," reading from the book of Ecclesiastes. Kikoski plays some sanctified piano; Escoffery and Blake, the latter with even a touch of Lester Young, are very effective in restrained tenor duet, sounding rather lyrical before Lacy joins in with Hallejujahs. Amen!
Track Listing: Wham Bam; Opus Four; Celia; Bird Calls; Meditations; Prayer For Passive Resistance; Free Cell Block F; Ecclusiastics.
Personnel: Eddie Henderson, Alex Sipiagin, Jack Walrath: trumpets; Conrad Herwig, Ku-umba Frank Lacy:
trombones; Earl McIntyre: bass trombone/tuba; Craig Handy, Abraham Burton: alto
saxophone; Seamus Blake, Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Ronnie Cuber: baritone
saxophone; David Kikoski: piano; Kenny Davis: bass; Johnathan Blake: drums.