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Live Reviews

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

By Published: March 3, 2008

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.



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