Some years ago, as I sat on a professional committee, the subject of the Mingus Big Band came up. A colleague asked, "You mean they play only Mingus's music?" When told yes, she put her foot in her mouth: "He wrote enough music to fill a whole album?" An innovative bassist and volatile bandleader, Charles Mingus was also the most important jazz composer after Duke Ellington, his catalog bursting with indelible hard-bop anthems, deathless threnodies, multilayered blues tunes (some of which double as pointed political commentaries), turbulent tone poems, and sprawling, occasionally massive symphony-length works. Mingus wrote enough music to fill scores of albums--enough, certainly, to justify the creation of this posthumous tribute band, and even to provide it with a constantly changing repertoire. This year, for instance--Mingus would've turned 80 last Monday, April 22--the MBB has added a compressed rendition of his 1963 disc-length piece, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. The composition collides all the main stylistic elements of Mingus's music--including prejazz blues shouts, sophisticated Latin beats, hard-bop fire, third-stream polyphony, and gospel redemption--in its six dark and somewhat difficult movements, characterized by writer and musician Mike Zwerin as "Saturday night and Sunday morning too." The piece anchors the band's new album, Tonight at Noon... (Dreyfus), which also features unexpected (though not unwelcome) contributions from Elvis Costello; the disc shares its title with a new memoir by the composer's widow, Sue Mingus, who has watched over his flame and continues to direct the progress of this stellar orchestra. For this tour, most of the band's 14-piece lineup consists of musicians who never played with Mingus (he died in '79), but they've embraced his legacy and serve it well. They include wild-man trombonist Frank Lacy, saxist Seamus Blake (winner of the most recent Thelonious Monk competition), bright young trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, and terrific Russian-born bassist Boris Kozlov. Sue Mingus will emcee the shows and autograph copies of her book. Saturday, April 27, 9 and 11 PM, Sunday, April 28, 4 and 8 PM, and Monday, April 29, 8 and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ching Ming Cheung.