One of the great New York marriages of character and setting has to be the Mingus Big Band’s regular Thursday-night engagement at Fez, the Time Cafe’s pseudo-Moroccan basement of iniquity. Charles Mingus is the great, if often unacknowledged, spirit behind the postmodern Downtown jazz esthetic that put the Knitting Factory on the map, but it’s satisfying somehow that his posthumous working band has found a home not in that high-tech slacker arcade but in a space that seems to aspire to the harum-scarum sensuality of the music itself.
Nobody could mix and match like Mingus, and there’s no better showcase than “Cumbia & Jazz Fusion,” the centerpiece tune from the Mingus Big Band’s new album, ¡Que Viva Mingus! on Dreyfus, out later this month. Mingus recorded the piece in 1977, just two years before his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and it’s been reissued by Rhino on the album of the same name. Conceived as the soundtrack to an Italian movie about the Colombian drug trade, “Cumbia” begins with recorded bird calls-it’s a Colombian jungle, man-then moves into the swinging, drug-consuming purlieus of Harlem and climaxes with a famous (among Mingus-lovers) rap, the bassist bellowing, “Who says mama’s little baby likes short’nin’ bread? … Mama’s little baby likes truffles … caviar … all the fine things in life.” In its sheer refusal to curb its stylistic promiscuity or its 28-minute length, “Cumbia” strikes me as the jazz precursor to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and any outrage that comparison provokes is only in the best Mingusian tradition.
The Mingus Big Band’s version of “Cumbia” commences with the trombonist Steve Turre playing a solo on conch shell, an honorable substitution, though Sue Mingus, Charles’ widow and the driving force behind the band, writes drolly in the liner notes about putting a few hundred birds out of work. The arrangement, by Sy Johnson, who worked with Mingus in the 70′s, is a tour de force , although, inevitably, the performance sounds a little slick compared to the barely controlled anarchy of the original. Maybe more surprising are the two long pieces on ¡Que Viva Mingus! , drawn from Mingus’ other Latin-flavored album, Tijuana Moods (reissued with alternate takes as New Tijuana Moods on RCA Victor). Both “Los Mariachis” and “Ysabel’s Table Dance” (the arrangments are by Michael Mossman and saxophonist Steve Slagle, respectively) move through a kaleidoscope of styles with a swinging ferocity that Mingus would have frankly envied. All his life, he craved and rarely had a large ensemble to serve his oversized compositional ambitions. “Charles wanted a band like this desperately,” Sy Johnson said. “And on a night when the gods are smiling, it is an awesome thing.”
¡Que Viva Mingus! is an inspired, contrarian choice to win the favor of gods and audiences because no one in their right mind would think of Mingus as a Latin composer. By contrast, Dizzy Gillespie helped pioneer an Afro-Cuban jazz style that, to put it mildly, took on a life of its own. (Indeed, it’s currently threatening to consume the entire New York jazz world.) Miles Davis’ journey into flamenco, 1960′s Sketches of Spain , nicely absorbs the hauteur of the original source material. But Mingus can sound only like Mingus, even when the song title is in Spanish. He, along with his idols Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, were the great kitchen-sink maximalists of jazz-everything gets tossed in. Just as Jelly Roll famously said that good jazz should have “the Spanish tinge,” so Mingus was, without warning, likely to toss some flamenco into any tune. Said Mr. Johnson, “Charles would say in the middle of a performance, ‘Modulate into the key of D and give me a little of that Spanish trash.’”
As Ms. Mingus and the band discovered, you have to know an arrangement cold before you can start tossing around “the Spanish trash.” Last year’s poll-topping live album, Live in Time (Dreyfus), suggested that the band had probably the strongest book of large-ensemble arrangements in jazz. ¡Que Viva Mingus! meant starting over, learning the material in front of a paying audience.
“Charles realized cleverly that he could call a concert a ‘workshop,’” Ms. Mingus said, “and he could play the same piece over and over, and people wouldn’t ask for their money back. But with ¡Que Viva Mingus! , I realized my demands were excessive. We would spend all night rehearsing. Once, two people called afterwards to complain, and I called them back and ate crow. One woman said we played the same tune nine times.”
Ms. Mingus may not have quite her husband’s appetite for public confrontation, but she has mastered the first principle of his working method: demanding from the band the highest level of im perfection. As Mr. Johnson recalled: “Charles had a chaos theory long before the scientists. He would get infuriated if the band really started to swing hard. He felt that the band was being taken away from him. He would get mad and try to fuck it up. He wanted to mix it up, make it uncomfortable for the players so they would reach deeper into themselves.”
Without the benefit of Charles Mingus to trip them up, the Big Band finds its proper level of chaos by having no one specifically in charge of the music. Sue Mingus draws on a pool of maybe 100 first-rate players that on a given night might include trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist John Stubblefield, pianist Kenny Drew Jr. Instead of a lineup, there are fractal patterns of personnel that assume a specific personality for one Thursday and then disappear. The constants are a lot of good soloists competing for solo space, the arrangements and Mingus’ own tunes. It adds up to a coherence rare in a big-band world where brass sections still play call-and-response with the reeds. Another way of looking at it is that it all adds up to Mingus.
“He’s dead center in the middle of the music,” Ms. Mingus said. “I think all the musicians feel that way. Sometimes there are specific moments when the bass string will snap at the beginning of a concert, and everyone gets a funny look on their face. He’s still egging people, making these demands. I feel like a mouthpiece for him-I’m the loudmouth in the wings.”