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

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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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