Picks and Pans Review: Live in Time
Mingus Big Band
Charles Mingus died in 1979, but the great jazz composer-bassist’s music—a protean, self-contradictory universe, alternately brawling and tender, passionate and cool, angry and seductive—continues to find new listeners. Here are two albums of Mingus music, one a reissue (with 40 minutes of previously unreleased material), the other brand-new. Both are live double CDs featuring big bands. They’re fascinating food for comparison.
Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert (Columbia/Legacy) is, to put it simply, a mess. The stormy-souled, disorganized Mingus was notorious for giving disastrous concerts, overambitious and underrehearsed. This one, in 1972 at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, was no exception. The band is incredibly, at times comically, ragged, especially on the evening’s centerpiece, the 20-minute “Little Royal Suite.”
Live in Time (Dreyfus) is another story. The Mingus Big Band, assembled in 1991 by the composer’s widow, Sue Mingus, plays only Mingus music. The composer left behind a huge oeuvre, much of it not only unrecorded but unheard. In five years, the MBB has grown into a relaxed, well-oiled machine, and by continually adding new arrangements, it avoids stagnation. It’s a better band than ever today. Live in Time has plenty of meaty, memorable solos by alto saxophonist Steve Slagle, trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Randy Brecker, pianists Kenny Drew Jr. and John Hicks and saxophonists Gary Bartz, John Stubblefield and Seamus Blake, but the real star is this world-class band, swinging through Mingus’s music with an ease that masks the pieces’ difficulty.
Mingus’s ambitions were beyond his reach. His own concerts were often botches, and project after project remained unfinished. But he left an incredible legacy for gifted musicians like the Mingus Big Band to learn from, adapt and perfect.