Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 9, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Jazz fans in New York City know there's only one place to be Thursday nights -- the Time Cafe, where over the last five years the Mingus Big Band has developed into one of the music's most powerful, hard-blowing ensembles. Thanks to the French label Dreyfus, which has just released "Live in Time," a live two-CD album recorded over three nights at the Time Cafe, music lovers need not travel to the Big Apple to experience some of New York's greatest players channeling the spirit of the legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus. The 14-piece band, created by the bassist's widow Sue Mingus, is dedicated to keeping the maestro's vast and varied repertoire in the public ear.

Even die-hard Mingus devotees are likely to be surprised by some of material on "Live in Time," like the chops-busting opener "Number 29," a tune Mingus penned in 1972 to humble some of the hot young trumpeters of the day. (Randy Brecker, a Mingus veteran, handles the chart with aplomb.) The concept of a Mingus-less Mingus band might seem strange, but this group is no ghost band playing the same tunes the same way night after night. Though the band does perform a number of composed pieces without improvisation, over the course of the album the players have plenty of room to stretch out and express themselves, both through solos and by reworking Mingus' compositions.

Due to the economics of jazz, Mingus himself never led a group as big as the Mingus Big Band for any length of time, so only two of the numbers on the album were arranged by Mingus. The other arrangements were supplied either by the other band members or by Sy Johnson, who collaborated with Mingus a number of times before the composer's death in 1979. In some cases the players take liberties, as does the great baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, who transforms the earthy "Moanin'" to "Moanin' Mambo" with an Afro-Caribbean twist. Other highlights include an ecstatic, stomping nine-minute workout on "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" and a passionate version of "So Long Eric" -- written for the late reed virtuoso Eric Dolphy -- which features solos by the entire horn section. Only a band so laden with talented improvisors could cover the huge swath of musical territory charted in Mingus' works.

Where most jazz musicians master the style dominant during their youth, Mingus drew from the entire range of jazz history, from the blues and group improvisation of New Orleans jazz to the advanced harmonics of bebop and the innovative voicings of Duke Ellington. Though Mingus' challenging music will probably never be as widely played as Ellington's or Thelonious Monk's (the three comprising the holy trinity of jazz composers), "Live in Time" highlights just how rich a treasure trove he left behind.

By Andrew Gilbert

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