REVIEW: Mingus Amongst Us, Chapel Off Chapel, Monday 19 May, 8pm for Stonnington Jazz
Possibly it’s a little flippant to ask this, but how many flautists does it take to unhinge a trumpet player? The answer, it seems, is three. So, in the second — and spectacular — set invoking the spirit of Charles Mingus, three of the nonet’s reeds players put down their saxes and picked up flutes. And in a clear case of flute envy, horn player Ray Cassar turned his instrument horizontal and began miming a flautist behind the other three.
This amusing moment reflected how much fun the nine band members were having as they played Steve Fitzmaurice‘s arrangements of music by great bass player and composer Charles Mingus, which has been described as “earthy, passionate and sophisticated, blues and gospel-inspired jazz”.
The line-up of this ensemble, which performs regularly in Sydney, varies a little according to who’s available in the city where they are playing, but at Chapel Off Chapel we heard Fitzmaurice (baritone sax) with Cassar (trumpet), Jordan Murray (trombone), Nick Mulder (trombone), Carlo Barbaro (tenor sax), Tim Wilson (alto sax), Joe Chindamo (piano), Tom Lee (bass) and Hugh Harvey (drums).
I freely admit to loving this group’s work and these Mingus arrangements so much that it’s been hard to remain dispassionate (if that’s called for) or to think too deeply about what I like about the Mingus Amongst Us gigs I’ve heard at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club. I find myself just getting into the music and soaking it up as it pours forth from these superb musicians.
Reviewers are supposed to have their critical antennae up, I think, so can I find a quibble? If I have to, it would be that Cassar on trumpet — as opposed to on flugelhorn — was at times so intensely piercing that some notes seemed to upset the balance slightly. But I loved his swinging horn in Fables of Faubus and his flugelhorn work amid the sweeping vistas of Alice’s Wonderland (originally Diane), which was an absolutely splendid piece. My only other regret was that Tom Lee’s solos on bass were too brief.
So what was so appealing and so clearly had the audience — not quite as many as I’d hoped, but it was a Monday night — enthralled? Mingus Amongst Us serves up a rich feast of sound that is full of momentum. From the start of the first set, when Harvey was able to “stick it to us” with a long solo, we heard a band that was tight and punchy, with full-on pieces as well as ballads. We heard sharp splinters of sound and fiery bursts in Jump Monk, tension and crescendoes in Gunslinging Bird (originally If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger There’d Be a Whole Lot of Copycats), shimmering horn volleys in Fight Song and enough forward momentum in Tijuana Gift Shop to justify Julia Gillard‘s phrase “going forward” (and don’t we miss Julia).
We heard ripper solos from Barbaro in Gunslinging Bird and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (how deep can a tenor sax go?), from Wilson in Fight Song and the closing Better Get Hit in Your Soul, from Fitzmaurice in Alice’s Wonderland and amid the wonderful chaos of Moanin’, from Mulder in Fight Song, from Chindamo in Tijuana Gift Shop and, along with Murray, in Us is Two, plus many more.
There is so much energy in Mingus. So much of it is released by this ensemble. And there is wonder and beauty there in ballads such as Self Portrait in Three Colors.
So, great arrangements, great musicians and a great vibe. Ages ago I wrote that after a Mingus Amongst Us concert that I almost expected to hear Charles Mingus say “Amen” at gig’s end. That’s not far off, I reckon.