Jazztown ’99: Mingus Big Band wows crowd

It is rare enough to see Chapin Hall full. It is rarer still to see a capacity crowd rise immediately to its feet in a thunderous standing ovation – at intermission. This was the scene, however, when the Mingus Big Band, headline act for Jazztown ’99, galvanized the audience in an electrifying performance Friday night.

The Mingus Big Band is a band dedicated to performing the compositions of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. The band, managed by Mingus’ widow Sue Mingus, includes many of the top jazz musicians in New York City.

The fourteen piece band opened the show with “Jump Monk,” inspired, as the name implies, by the music of Thelonious Monk. Beginning with a solo trumpet line that grows into some chaotic group improvisation, the song continues with an ensemble statement of the melody. Jason Perry gave an energetic, extended saxophone solo over some particularly meaty backgrounds in the trumpets and trombones.

The second piece the band performed was the captivating “The Children’s Hour of Dream” from the two-hour orchestral composition Epitaph. Mingus named the piece Epitaph because he believed, correctly, that it would never be performed in his lifetime. “The Children’s Hour of Dream” began with a flourish of cymbals and a haunting melody in the horns, led by Alex Foster’s alto saxophone and John Stubblefield’s flute. Both Foster and Stubblefield alternated between flute and saxophone throughout the piece. After the initial melodic statement, the trombones laid down the foundation of an insistent march, over which the trumpets would occasionally burst in with a three-note descending figure. This section, which at times recalled Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, gave way to a meditative piano solo from Kevin Hays. Intermittent hits from individual horn players over the piano solo became more frequent and a trumpet-led recapitulation closed out the piece.

The band continued with an arrangement of “Nostalgia in Times Square,” a blues with non-traditional chord changes. It began with a two-chord vamp, led by Boris Kozlov, in the intimidating role of Charles Mingus himself (and playing Mingus’ own bass) and fleshed out by the legendary Howard Johnson on Tuba. The saxophones took the melody for eight bars and were doubled by a ridiculously high trumpet line for four bars. Johnson took a rousing solo on Tuba, followed by Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, whose solo began quietly but built to an impressive level of intensity.

Sipiagin was followed by trombonist Conrad Herwig, who raised the level of excitement from the first note of his solo. Hunched over slightly so he could play into the microphone, Herwig let loose with a solo that showcased his beautiful tone and impressive range. The notes got faster and higher, until having reached a staggering climax, Herwig concluded his solo and sat down, visibly exhausted and panting for breath. The song ended with a restatement of the melody.

Next Foster introduced the final song of the first set, “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion,” a 1977 composition that appeared on the Mingus Big Band’s album Que Viva Mingus as well as the Mingus album Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. It began with some ambient percussion and a lot of bass drum, as well as handclaps and shouts of “Cumbia!” from the band. Foster provided the initial melodic statement on soprano saxophone and was soon joined by the rest of the ensemble as they constructed huge walls of sound through some mighty crescendos. John Stubblefield, who played with Mingus, gave a tenor saxophone solo that faded into a lush half time section and culminated in a piano cadenza by Hays. The bass and drums then established a dirty shuffle, and Stubblefield stood up again and began an even more energetic solo.

In a band of excellent musicians, where the ensemble work was as impressive, if not more so, than the solos, Stubblefield was clearly the most memorable player. Obviously enjoying himself, Stubblefield played directly to the audience, quoting “Go Tell it on the Mountain” in his solo and mouthing, “Ow!” at the top of an ascending line. His solo reached a climax when he began circular breathing and screeching some incredibly high notes from his horn.

When his solo was over, the crowd applauded for so long that he stood up and took a second bow, while one of the trumpet players fanned him off with his music and the rhythm section kept time. Stubblefield then sat down and picked up a vocal microphone. “Mama’s little baby don’t like no shortening bread,” he cried. “Mama’s little baby likes caviar and the finer things in life.” He and one of the trombonists then exchanged a dialogue about how “Aunt Jemima don’t like no Uncle Ben,” and the ensemble descended into anarchy. A theme soon emerged in the horns and faded out until the players put down their horns and sang, dropping out one by one. The final note of the piece was sung by Foster and played by Johnson on baritone saxophone.

As the band stood to leave the stage after their first set, the audience rose to its feet and gave an enthusiastic standing ovation. “We’ll be back,” protested a confused Foster, worried that the audience might think the show was over and leave.

However, no one thought of leaving before the second set, which the Mingus Big Band began with the rousing, “Haitian Fight Song,” which was, as Foster pointed out, recently featured in the movie Jerry Maguire. It began with an impressive bass solo by Kozlov that featured deep, aching sustained notes and some very fast passages in the upper register. Herwig then played the melody on trombone, and one by one the saxophones and trombones joined in. The trumpets came in on top with the insistent staccato triplets of the melody, and then the ensemble crescendoed to an enormous fortissimo before fading down beneath Foster’s soprano saxophone and solos on trombone and trumpet.

The next number was the famous “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” dedicated to the late Saxophonist Lester Young. The tune began with a tenor saxophone cadenza played by Mark Shim, who then played the plaintive melody over horn backgrounds. Shim’s solo led into a poignant bass solo by Kozlov. The restatement of the theme was at once powerful and gentle.

After the beautiful and touching “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat,” the Mingus Big Band played “Fables of Faubus,” a protest song about Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who resisted integration in Little Rock’s Central High school in 1957, four years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. The Board of Education. “Fables of Faubus” began with shouts from the band and a riotous baritone saxophone line from Johnson. Stubblefield again took the microphone, looking over his shoulder and shouting, “Why is he so sick and ridiculous there, anyhow?” and “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” When Jason Perry began his alto saxophone solo, the trumpet section sang their backup figures adding an interesting texture to the music. Perry’s solo was followed by a trumpet solo that disintegrated into chaos and soon gave way to a trumpet cadenza and a recapitulation of the theme.

At the last note of “Fables of Faubus,” the crowd rose to its feet again, to give the second standing ovation of the evening. After several minutes of enthusiastic applause, Howard Johnson returned to the stage to play a funk number on baritone saxophone. Kozlov and the drummer soon danced out on stage to provide a beat, and, when the entire band was back on stage, Johnson honked out the rowdy first notes of “Moanin.’” Herwig followed Johnson’s solo with one of his own, which then gave way to a ferocious drum solo. After the recapitulation, the ensemble quoted the last notes of “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat” to conclude a truly extraordinary performance. The band left the stage during the third and final standing ovation of the night as the mildly shell-shocked audience pondered what it had just witnessed.

To say that the Mingus Big Band played with outstanding intensity, skill and feeling can only partially describe the experience. The concert left the audience exhilarated and speechless. However, two things are for sure – that the Mingus Big Band gave one of the most memorable performances Chapin Hall has seen in a long while and that Williamstown greatly appreciated it.

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