Sharps and Flats: Mingus Big Band

Michael Agovino reviews "Que Viva Mingus".

By Michael J. Agovino
Published April 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

If there were any lingering doubt that Charles Mingus' legacy wouldn't survive, the Mingus Big Band, under the direction of his widow, Sue Mingus, is around to converse with us, to pose questions, to challenge. Its latest offering, "Que Viva Mingus," is a collection of the master's Latin compositions.

Now, Mingus was many, many things -- blues-stomper, gospel-revivalist, jazz ultra-modernist, futurist even -- but he was hardly a Latin musician. In his erudite, brawling eclecticism, he did touch now and again on "Latin music." Within that genre, not surprisingly, he was all over the map, indulging in cumbia, mambo, flamenco and mariachi.

So it's a clever idea then, this record, as these are not literal adaptations -- and it's just as well, as Mingus would have reviled that. Take, for instance, "Far Wells Mill Valley," a piece Mingus dedicated to an artist friend in 1959. The original is more North African, more evocative of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" than anything of the High Andes or the Caribbean. But with Milton Cardona on congas, a driving force on this recording, suddenly it's a rousing Puerto Rican bomba.

"Que Viva Mingus" is bookended by two exceptional pieces: the epic, mercurial "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion" and the flamenco-inspired "Ysabel's Table Dance." The Big Band's rendering of "Cumbia" is a truncated one -- 17 minutes, down from the original 28 -- but not without the sprawling nuance. From the first "movement," the Big Band declares this their own: Trombonist Steve Turre, a veteran of this group, opens with a conch shell solo, whereas the original introduction was an interplay of oboe and bassoon. Turre, also a member of the "Saturday Night Live" band (his day job), has been doubling on shells on his own recordings -- some of the best-kept secrets in '90s jazz -- and couldn't be more appropriate than on "Cumbia."

The only contrivance is the vocal line, "Who say mamma's little baby likes shortnin' bread?" It's just not the same. Neither is the vocal on "Eat That Chicken": Originally a tribute to Fats Waller, here it's turned into, of all things, a mambo. Among his many talents, Mingus had this great, indelible speaking/rapping voice, and its absence on such familiar tunes can be jarring. "Love Chant," that great wind-up to "Pithecanthropus Erectus," doesn't quite have the pensive mingling of alto and tenor. And a bit of Spanish guitar, somewhere on the record, might have been the proper reverential allusion to "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady." Maybe that's for another time. These are points of taste, after all, and minor ones at that. "Que Viva Mingus" is the Big Band's most ambitious effort so far -- it may, too, be its best.

Michael J. Agovino

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