Music News

Mingus Big Band

Presidential candidate Steve Forbes claims to be "an outsider who's not a part of the political process." Jerry Lawler, professional wrestler and Memphis mayoral candidate, boasts that he has "no political past." In America, even our politics are apolitical. Socio-economic commentary seldom tracks across our pop-culture radar. And it's rarer still to find musical protestations as captivating as those of the Mingus Big Band.

Blues and Politics, the big band's fifth CD, is yet another brilliant release from producer Sue Mingus and the Mingus Big Band. In 1997, Que Viva Mingus! assembled the late great bassist's Latin-tinged works; the relative obscurities and rumbling subways on 1996's Live in Time captured the MBB's playful professionalism at Fez, underneath Time Cafe in Manhattan, where the band has held forth almost every Thursday night in the Nineties. With Blues, the players discover yet another rewarding way to dissect and appreciate the art of the late Charles Mingus, who died in 1979. In the process, they remind us that Mingus the genius was not afraid to sow radical oats.

Thanks to a feat of audio engineering, Mingus himself narrates and plays bass on the first tune, which intermingles "It Was a Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama," a previously unreleased group improv, with old and new arrangements of "Freedom." The result -- the current band backing Mingus with glorified field hollering -- is striking. The instrumental "Haitian Fight Song" requires no words to match the fury of Rage Against the Machine; its revolutionary fervor is as panoramic as the eighteenth-century uprising that inspired the song. Better-known veterans such as pianist John Hicks and trumpeter Randy Brecker chime in here, but bassist Boris Kozlov steals the show with the opening bars. Though the Big Band generally features fourteen or so players, more than 100 musicians have reportedly circulated through it and remain "on call." If the sound is usually large, Ronnie Cuber's baritone sax on "Don't Let it Happen Here" is nothing short of colossal. "Meditations for a Pair of Wire Cutters," with its orchestral sweep, defiant swing and glib improvisation, mightily demonstrates why the Mingus Big Band earns the persistent adoration of its listeners. Alex Foster, John Stubblefield, Vincent Herring, Alex Sipiagin and others too numerous to mention hit four more songs, including "Good Bye Pork Pie Hat" and "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me," at a bluesy ground zero. The force is every bit as strong as Mingus's own disgust at the feebleminded racists and morally bankrupt oppressors he witnessed.

Some Mingus-philes may cynically downplay this disc as "quality rebellion at an affordable price," to borrow a phrase. That would be unfortunate. Blues and Politics presents listeners with a few historical moments and 75 minutes of first-rate repertory recordings that celebrate one of the most important figures in twentieth-century music.

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Thomas Peake