Jazz: Like the man never left us

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The Independent Culture

LISTEN TO the music of the late Charles Mingus and you get the feeling that all of human life is here. There's mewling cries and choking death rattles, an abundance of both laughter and tears, and enough proudly tumescent horn-play for several rites of spring.

A big man with big emotions, Mingus deployed the instruments of the orchestra rather as if they were parts of the human body. In his arrangements you can almost hear the pulsing of blood, the rumblings of a stomach, and the irregular thump of an over-excited heart.

The Mingus Band, formed by the composer's widow Sue Mingus to keep the spirit of his music alive, is both a satisfyingly faithful reflection of the man himself, and a wonderfully rumbustious group in its own right. It's both tight and loose at the same time, blending stately, Ellingtonian ensemble passages with uproarious moments of great passion. There's also so much heat and friction generated by the bravura blowing of the featured soloists that it sometimes seems as if the bandstand is likely to explode at any moment.

In this first performance of a two-week run at Ronnie's, the looseness was perhaps more in evidence than it will be for the rest of the engagement. At the beginning, the band had to sit in silence for what seemed an age while the trumpet section searched for their music, and you couldn't help wondering how Mingus himself - if there in body as well as spirit - might have reacted. He once brought a revolver on stage to settle an argument in the band and, in his necessarily brief engagement with the Ellington orchestra, he famously chased another bandsman across the stage with an axe. Happily, the response here was no more than a sigh of mild impatience from the leader, Steve Slagle.

Though the band is picked from a large floating pool of personnel when plays its weekly residency at the Time Cafe in New York, the 14 members at Ronnie's include a number of players who are stars in their own right. The level of individual playing was astonishing, especially from the front-line of saxophonists. Bobby Watson and Slagle on altos, Seamus Blake and John Stubblefield on tenors, and Ronnie Cuber on baritone all took heroic solos while - in authentic Mingus style - the rest of the band egged them on with whoops, hollers and hand-claps, as well as the odd ironic put-down.

But despite the brilliance of the solos, the ensemble was really the thing. At the end, with the band riffing on the chorus to Better Git in Your Soul, with squealing trumpets, braying trombones and roaring saxes threatening to blow the house down, you could imagine the spirit of dear, departed Charlie hovering over them like a genie escaped from the lamp.

The Mingus Big Band continues at Ronnie Scott's, W1, until Saturday, 4 July (0171 439 1747)