In 1976, Charles Mingus performed with a quintet in Japan's capital. Almost thirty years later, the Mingus Big Band, one of the most energetic ensembles of a handful that further his legacy today, visited the Blue Note in Tokyo. Fourteen players, sixty-four minutes and no holds barred, the newly released disc Live in Tokyo documents some powerful blowing and smart arrangements.
"Wham Bam" sets the stage for their fiery feats. Pianist David Kikoski positively flies across the keys in the intro. Those who have witnessed Kikoski live know how literal this image is. We hear the high and low ends of the band in adjacent solos from baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, whose throaty sound recalls Pepper Adams, and the brilliantly virtuosic Alex Sipiagin. Though generally more spare in his statements, it's great to hear a more verbose Eddie Henderson on trumpet in "Opus Four." Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy joins him in a duet after giving a gutsy solo with his trademark air-raid siren glissando. "Bird Calls" is naturally a sax feature. Cuber makes his bari sound much more dexterous than typically imagined, and Seamus Blake's consistently full, centered sound (even in the upper register) produces some great lines. Contrasting altoists Craig Handy and Abraham Burton join the fray and the foursome brings the group to a boil.
John Stubblefield finished the arrangement of "Prayer for Passive Resistance" while in the hospital. It was the last piece he worked on before passing away mid-2005. Sue Mingus's liner notes here say: "'The tenor is the preacher,' he told the musicians who stood around his bed. 'He's confronting the cops and the barking dogs. He's telling everyone to resist and to pray.'" Wayne Escoffery fills the role here not with gospel cliches (which one might be tempted to use at the mention of being a "preacher") but with some equally appropriate, well-shaped ideas rich in melody. He sails over the band’s full chords and 12/8 backbeat during the cathartic closing of the piece.
The complete title of "Free Cell Block F" is "Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A." originally recorded by one of Mingus's small groups from the Seventies around the time they visited Tokyo. The title was assigned to the piece after Mingus read about Southern prisons' executions by electrocution. Contrary to the title (in typical Mingusian fashion), the piece sounds quite summery. Though the original song uses the trumpet-and-tenor format, the band broadens the sound with bari sax, trombone and flute features. The brightness of the tune makes the bari sax sound more earthy than simply heavy, and Craig Handy's flute performance is beautiful, shifting between realms of light and shadow. This is a gem of a performance.
Energy, abandon, wit and individuality channeled through a common vision are all key ingredients of this ensemble as was the case for Mingus's own groups. And while the big band's explosive performances take the bassist's music to exciting new heights, their relative renown continues to earn respect for his legacy.
Buy Live in Tokyo.