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Live Reviews

Mingus Big Band and Cyrus Chestnut Trio at The Kimmel Center, Philadelphia

By Published: March 3, 2008

The Mingus Band has taken a musical legacy and transformed it into a creative force that generates a contemporary originality and vitality all its own.

Cyrus Chestnut Trio and Mingus Big Band
The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Verizon Hall
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
February 22, 2008

There is a saying to the effect that "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." That is what the Kimmel Center did with two problems that arose on this particular concert evening. First, T.S. Monk cancelled his engagement due to illness. But Cyrus Chestnut was recruited as a substitute and turned out to be a gentle "knight in shining armor," graciously performing a series of Thelonious Monk standards. Then, on the day of the concert, snow and ice blanketed the Philadelphia area, seriously interfering with travel. Yet a good crowd showed up, all the musicians arrived in a timely manner, and a great evening of music ensued.


Pre-Concert Conversation with Sue Mingus



The evening was given a special flare by the presence of Sue Mingus, Charles' widow, who has miraculously organized and sustained, over two decades, several groups, including the Big Band, specifically to honor and propagate Mingus' musical legacy. Ms. Mingus participated in a pre-concert conversation at Kimmel's Merck Education Center, deftly hosted by Mervon Mehta, VP for Programming. A noted author of Tonight At Noon, a book depicting her life with Charles, Sue Mingus told some great stories about the man, his music, and the bands she produces in his name. A larger-than-life figure, Charles Mingus was on this night portrayed by his widow as a deeply human figure, caught from birth between Caucasian and African-American subcultures, a serious player and composer of rich creativity, a man of contradictions who was a serious devotee of Buddhism and Hinduism, yet lived impulsively on the edge, and one who suffered the tragic end of ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease), which left him paralyzed and needing to sing his last compositions into a tape recorder. At the same time, big bands always have uproarious and ironic stories to tell, and Ms. Mingus had us all laughing about the band's weird gig at a remote island on the Russian Arctic coast, a god-forsaken place with ramshackle remains of the barracks where the Soviets had imprisoned and tortured dissidents. Flying with the band were some crazy entrepreneurs—and an audience of about 200 tourists who had been sold on the idea of a weekend getaway vacation! As any jazz musician can tell you, such are the vicissitudes of life on the road—in this case Russian-style.

Ms. Mingus, who loved Charles deeply after she met him at the Five Spot Cafe in the early 1960s, of course presented an idealized picture of him. No mention was made of his depression, substance abuse, and intractable violence; nor, on the other hand, of his ignorant mistreatment at the hands of racists. (In the early 1970s, this reviewer thrilled to Mingus' performance at a now-defunct club called Grendel's Lair on South Street in Philadelphia, only to learn later how he was manhandled by the Philadelphia police here.) These matters need to be aired, not to demean the person or the era, but so that we can all learn from them. Much of Mingus' music is as passionate and intense as the man himself, and cannot be understood without a glimpse into his own deeply troubled soul. Yet I have no quarrel here with Sue Mingus. Charles was her lover and her hero and, after all, he was one of the finest musicians and composers in the history of jazz. Above all, he needs to be remembered that way. Further, this was not the occasion for deep analysis. As Mr. Mehta suggested, Ms. Mingus herself has quietly and modestly become a legendary figure in modern jazz, and it was an honor for all of us just to be in her presence.



Cyrus Chestnut Trio



The present writer admittedly has his listening lacunae, and one of them is that he had no exposure to the music of Cyrus Chestnut until this evening. That may actually be an advantage to a reviewer, however, for the lack of familiarity gives him a fresh ear. Simply put, Chestnut is "a gas." With his large build and thick, powerful fingers, he took over the piano and did whatever he pleased with it. He ranged all over the keyboard and incorporated whatever motifs and styles occurred to him in the moment. Yet he managed to stick close to his drummer and bassist, and to weave a delightful and virtuosic tapestry of music.

Chestnut was fortunate to have two outstanding musicians assist him at this last-minute gig: Philadelphia-based Byron Landham, on drums, and DC native and up-coming young lion, Ben Williams, on bass. Chestnut also had the inspiration to connect with T.S. Monk fans by doing a set of compositions by the latter's father. As Chestnut himself indicated, he improvised on them in his own style, his own way, which added a certain fascination to the elder Monk's already complex and quirky tendencies. Chestnut used more traditional swing and bebop rhythms to contrast with and highlight periodic segues into Monk's notorious angular syncopations and disruptions of locomotion. In addition—and Monk would have appreciated this— Chestnut plays the piano like a piano rather than a generic keyboard instrument. He brings out the timbres of the wood and strings and cast iron that a Steinway grand is made of, so that you can really hear itsbeautiful sound. (I checked with the sound engineer during the intermission, and he confirmed that the rich sonorities evoked by Mr. Chestnut were indeed strictly acoustical.)

The trio performed a series of seven well-known Monk tunes. In the up-tempo numbers, like "In Walked Bud, Landham swung competently on drums, emphasizing at times an approach reminiscent of Gene Krupa, though in this particular tune he almost seemed to be "channeling" Art Blakey hard-bop thunder. At other times, he used his more familiar lighter touch, with some echoes of Elvin Jones' polyrhythms along with exquisite brush work on the cymbals. Excellent bass playing was provided throughout the set by the "young lion" Ben Williams, a DC native who has performed both nationally and internationally with suchartists as Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Blake, Bobby Watson, Wycliffe Gordon, and Delfeayo Marsalis to name a few. It was easy to see why this young man is lighting up the jazz spectrum with his precise, supremely intelligent playing.

On ballads like "Round Midnight" Chestnut performed beautifully, with his emphasis onmelodic runs and sparse chordal voicings, covering the full range of the piano. He experimented creatively, at one point going into a waltz tempo during a chorus of this standard. On the up tempo tunes, Chestnut came on with more of Monk's unique rhythmic "slant." Paul Desmond once noted that Monk "plays at an angle; and it's the right angle," with a double meaning for 'right angle." In addition, Chestnut's pyrotechnics were in full evidence, suggesting the virtuosity of a seasoned concert pianist. Returning to Monk-associated ballads, as in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (not a Monk original, though Jerome Kern would not have recognized his own melody), he used his left hand to provide a "stride" bass accompaniment that would have pleased Monk no end.

All in all, Chestnut, along with his tight and disciplined rhythm section, displayed a impressive virtuosity, a tendency to experiment, and a mastery of Monk's music that pleased an audience alternately burned by T.S. Monk's cancellation and frozen by the icy weather. And Landham's Philadelphia fans showed by their cheering how thrilled they were by their favorite drummer's performance as well.



Mingus Big Band



Following the intermission, Sue Mingus noted that players Orrin Evans and Jaleel Shaw are native Philadelphians, praised the architecture of Verizon Hall, and gave a brief history of the Mingus Big Band, emphasizing that they perform only Charles' original compositions, which the pundits said couldn't be done successfully, and which the band has proved wrong by virtue of its incredible track record of international gigs and recordings. Ms. Mingus' black dress set the color scheme for the set. The musicians ambled out slowly, all in black attire, with a black background and standard black music stands. The overall effect was serious, even somber, suggesting a touch of mourning perhaps for Mingus' untimely death from ALS, as well as his deeply troubled life as an African-American male during the American Apartheid period, and the lack of recognition of his composing until after his death.

By contrast, the music itself proved alive and vital. It began a brief muted solo by trombonist Conrad Herwig on Mingus' intense "Haitian Fight Song," commemorating the liberator Toussaint's Overture. Trumpeter Kenny Rampton followed up with a sidewinding solo using a plunger mute. (Plunger mutes were used exclusively throughout the set, perhaps consistent with Mingus's earthiness as well as his love of Ellington's music.) A Hancock-style piano solo by Evans elaborated on the theme of freedom, and the piece concluded with Herwig re-stating the intro. From the start, the band showed a tremendous exuberance that is rare today in jazz performance.

"Sweet Sucker Dance" was the tune that Mingus had to sing into a tape recorder due to his ALS. Seamus Blake rendered the piece magical with a sustained, beautiful tenor sax solo with strong support from the band. This was followed by bassist Boris Kozlov's arrangement of "Bemoanable Lady," featuring a laid- back, ironically-tinged trumpet solo by Lew Soloff with shades of Miles Davis's introspective sound and modal playing.

The energy level then quickly maxed out with "Isabelle's Table Dance," a raucous imagistic composition suggestive of Ravel's Bolero and Astor Piazzola's tangos. With a powerful drum solo by Donald Edwards, the intensity escalated, eventuating in a virtual Hemingway-esque bullfight scene incorporating a bass trombone solo by Earl McIntyre, a rapidly-bowed rhythmic bass solo by Kozlov, then full ensemble leading up to a stunning trombone solo by Herwig, which he ended more quietly with a touch of Trane's "Love Supreme." Then Jaleel Shaw came on with a rapid-fire 128th note alto sax solo a la Bird, followed in quick succession by a closing coda by the band's conductor and lead saxophonist, Craig Handy.

The band then performed "Children"s Hour of Dream," a movement from the lengthy Mingus composition Epitaph), which was through-composed and orchestrated like some of Duke Ellington"s longer symphonic compositions. First conducted posthumously in 1989 at Alice Tully Hall by Third Stream icon Gunther Schuller, Epitaph was called by the New Yorker magazine the first big breakthrough in jazz composition since Ellington. The orchestration reminded me a bit of Prokofiev"s overture to Love for Three Oranges, and the recurrent use of the children"s song, "Frere Jacques," made me wonder if Mingus was paying hommage to the Mahler symphony that evokes the same song in a minor key. Both "Isabelle"s Table Dance" and "Children"s Hour of Dream" showed Mingus' remarkable ability to "paint" music onto a sonic canvas with broad brush-strokes and a rich palette of colors like a van Gogh, Picasso, or Matisse.

The set closed with "Pedal Point Blues," indeed a very lively up-tempo blues; evoking an ambience akin to the Sharks-Jets rumble from West Side Story. The soloing here contrasted with the ensemble effects, with an Ellington style baritone sax solo by Jason Marshall and a precise, lucid trombone solo by Andy Hunter as well as Basie-like piano from Evans. Following a wild bass trombone solo by McIntyre using a huge, pliable plunger mute to accommodate the horn"s large bell and achieve a variety of effects, the band brought the evening to a photo finish that few groups could replicate.

Simply put, the Mingus Big Band is a wonder and an anomaly. During a time when the few surviving big bands, like the Count Basie Orchestra and Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, tour the world like beautiful museum treasures, the Mingus Band has taken a musical legacy and transformed it into a creative force that generates a contemporary originality and vitality all its own. They are an important part of the current jazz scene and a constant reminder that jazz—big band jazz, at that—is not merely entertainment but a powerful art form and means of expression. Kudos to this band, to Sue Mingus, and to the extraordinary and tragic man whose spirit pervades it all—the late, great Charles Mingus.



Personnel:
Cyrus Chestnut Trio
Cyrus Chestnut, piano; Ben Williams, bass; Byron Landham, drums



Mingus Big Band
Trumpets: Lew Soloff, Kenny Rampton, Earl Gardner; Saxophones: Seamus Blake; Craig Handy (Conductor); Vincent Herring, Jaleel Shaw, Jason Marshall; Trombones: Contrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Earl McIntyre; Drums: Donald Edwards; Bass: Boris Kozlov; Piano: Orrin Evans; Producer: Sue Mingus



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