It's common, although not common enough, for the great bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus to be granted revered composer status in the jazz canon. The efforts of his widow Sue Mingus have kept the man's name alive and music vital in the 30 years since his death but it's rare to hear projects that seem to pinpoint with such precision particular moments in Mingus' career as do recent tribute CDs by the Berlin quartet Dok Wallach and Montreal's Normand Guilbeault Ensemble.
Bassist (and worthy crooner) Normand Guilbeault led his small-in-number-large-in-scope big band through a set of the big man's songs on 2005's Mingus Erectus and ratchets them up to a sextet for Hommage à Mingus with the addition of pianist Normand Deveault, further fleshing it with guest vocalist Karen Young on two tracks. Guilbeault might be the strongest jazz classicist in the eclectic Ambiances Magnetiques collective and is a smart arranger who gets a remarkably big sound out of his group. Which means that, while the lineup might be closer to such classic Mingus albums as Ah Um or Blues & Roots, it's less a soloist's session than an arranger's album, more like the fisherman's wife's shoes than her orange dress, if you get my drift. Their take on the little noticed "Passions of a Woman Loved," from the 1957 album The Clown, even bears some resemblance to Mingus' final big band works. Undercutting that point, however, is the mighty baritone sax of Jean Derome; his defining of "Prayer for Passive Resistance" alone makes good on the sticker price.
Dok Wallach makes it clear from the outset that it's the edgier Mingus the band is after. Taking the name from the psycho-analyst Mingus saw at Bellevue Hospital (Dr. Wallach) in Mingus' autobiography Beneath the Underdog, the pianoless quartet draws inescapable allusions to 1960's Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, one of his strongest and, at the same time, most challenging records, even if none of the compositions here are from that album. The band features twin reeds rather than the Mingus quartet's reeds-and-trumpet frontline and Michael Thieke swaps out Eric Dolphy's then-unusual bass clarinet for the still-unusual alto clarinet. But it's not the instrumentation so much as the spirit of the music that draws the line back to one of Mingus' finest moments. While Live in Lisbon is their first release, the band has been playing from the songbook for more than a decade and thus have that rare familiarity that allows them to be at once loose and unified. That is heard most notably on two bold, extended medleys, "Tijuana Moods Montage" and "Ah Um Montage." The themes lifted from the respective landmark albums fall effortlessly (which, of course, likely means "with great effort") together, to the point that we can imagine we are listening along with the band, marveling together at how wonderful this music was and is.
Tracks and Personnel
Hommage a Mingus: Live at Upstairs 2008
Passions of a Woman Loved; Song With Orange; Weird Nightmare; Prayer for Passive Resistance; Eclipse; Sue's Changes.
Jean Derome: alto and baritone saxophones, flute, voice; Mathieu Belanger: clarinet, bass clarinet; Ivanhoe Jolicouer: trumpet, flugelhorn, voice; Normand Deveault: piano; Claude Lavergne: drums; Normand Guilbeault: bass, voice; Karen Young: voice.
Live in Lisbon
Tijuana Moods Montage; Hobo Ho; Eclips; Ah Um Montage; Pithecanthropus Erectus; Self-Portrait in Three Colors; Meditations on Integration.
Michael Thieke: alto saxophone, alto clarinet, clarinet; Daniel Erdmann: tenor saxophone; Johannes Fink: bass; Heinrich Kobberling: drums.