Whatever, the music of Charles Mingus remains very special. He succeeded in creating classically influenced art-music out of jazz - following the example of his hero Duke Ellington - while foregrounding its funk, blues and gospel roots more than any composer had ever done. In short, you can think to his music, but you have to sweat too. Now, Mingus's spirit has been re-kindled through two new events. One is the release of the wonderful three-CD box-set, Charles Mingus: the Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings (Sony Jazz). The other is the appearance at Ronnie Scott's of Mingus Big Band, the ensemble put together in New York by the composer's widow, Sue Mingus.
In the absence of the man himself - a notoriously temperamental leader who once knocked trombonist Jimmy Knepper's teeth out in an on-stage altercation - the 14 members of the band were directed in a non-combative, touchy- feely, kind of way by alto saxophonist Steve Slagle. A blend of players who actually played with Mingus; those who were old enough to but didn't get the chance; and those hardly born when he died, the orchestra includes some of the hottest musicians in New York. If they started a little slowly, the rhythmic engine soon began to warm up. Ensemble themes were punched out boldly; sudden switchbacks in the arrangements were negotiated with ease, and the featured solos in each number became more and more intense as the set progressed.
Bobby Watson on alto sax gradually raised the temperature to incendiary- level over five minutes; then the brilliant young tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake deliberately cooled things down. Due to the specialist nature of his instrument, the baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber had remained silent for much of the performance, staring out into space mournfully from the front row. When he got his turn at last, he went for nuclear fission straight from the off, alternating impossibly deep burps with impossibly high squeaks, as the other members of the band shouted their encouragement in authentic Mingus fashion.
By the end of the set, only the solo of tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield remained. A dapper, thick-set black man in middle-age, Stubblefield had spent the whole evening applauding everyone else's efforts and nervously fiddling with a reed in anticipation of his great moment. When it eventually came, he played with such abandon that he almost seemed to levitate, puffing out chorus after chorus of deep, funky phrases until he gradually deflated like a balloon. Then came the finale: a valedictory chorus from one of Mingus's best-loved numbers, "Better Git It in Your Soul", before the band left the stage to wild applause. And that was just the first set of the first night. By now they should be really steaming.
Ronnie Scott's, W1 (0171 439 0747), to Sat.Reuse content