Houston Street Sunset
"Data Garden: Quartet" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mingus Mondays: The Mingus Orchestra at the Jazz Standard

by Nicholas Fernandez

Mingus Orchestra Promo Shot
Photo courtesy of The Mingus Orhcestra

Compared to a big band, which may offer only a few different horn timbres between its 17 musicians, the 10-member Mingus Orchestra is an arranger’s dream, with an instrumental palette that regularly includes bass clarinet, French horn, flute, and electric bassoon. The Orchestra is one of three repertory bands—including the Mingus Big Band and the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty—organized by Charles Mingus’ widow, Sue Mingus, that hold court on “Mingus Mondays” at the Jazz Standard.

While the sight of classical instruments at a jazz concert could signal an over-arranged performance, the Mingus Orchestra is said to differ from the Big Band because it focuses on composition and downplays improvisation. At Monday's set, however, the emphasis was clearly on improvisation; each of the songs was flushed out with three or more extended solos and several of the works included one or more cadenzas. Composed passages held together artful solos that commented on the music while revealing a mix of strong musical personalities.

The band opened with “Blue Sea,” a twelve-bar blues that featured six solos tied together with bristling backgrounds and sharp dissonances. During the opening chorus—a walking solo by bassist Dezron Douglas—musicians fiddled with their instruments, checking tuning against the rhythm-section trio. Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy’s melodic entrance was only evident due to a repetitition in phrase, and after one chorus, he abandoned the written material for a blues-inflected improvisation. The other horn players continued to make adjustments, creating a varied cross-bandstand conversation.

While musical excellence is assured, “Mingus Mondays” are as improvised as the music, with a rotating cast of New York freelancers populating the ensembles that alternate the weekly performances. Alex Foster—covering flute, soprano, and alto saxophone duties—was the evening’s official leader, yet Lacy frequently assumed the role, rising from his seat to conduct, offer creative direction, and yell out rehearsal numbers. The loose atmosphere continued throughout the evening, with up to three musicians conducting the ensemble at the same time as the group navigated its way through Mingus’ intricate arrangements.

Even with the abundance of solos, Mingus’ compositional style was notable in the organization of the musical material, with “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers” displaying his collage-like style, juxtaposing chorale horn passages, up-tempo swing, and improvised cadenzas. His inventive and, at times, almost mocking take on the jazz tradition offered insight into the bassist’s boisterous personality and differentiated the performance from an otherwise ad-hoc jam session.

Mingus’s spirit was present throughout the evening's performance that meshed both complex organization and structured chaos, with atonal harmonizations atop a blues-infused foundation.