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Mingus Big Band: Tonight at Noon

Mingus’ music was stormy and tumultuous but unabashedly romantic. This magnificent album gives full vent to the emotions of the late bassist and composer, with an emphasis on the subject of love. Besides the Mingus Big Band, which has just entered its second decade, the album also features the 11-piece Charles Mingus Orchestra, a group that includes bassoon, bass clarinet, French horn and guitar.

“Love Is a Dangerous Necessity,” arranged by Sy Johnson and played by the big band, acts as a prelude to the album. It gives a short but grand start to things. There are rich voicings and a strong theme plus passionate solos by trumpeter Randy Brecker and tenor saxophonist Craig Handy. Get ready!

The orchestra follows with four performances, and it’s good to hear how adaptable Mingus’ compositions are to the different instrumentation, thanks to arrangers Johnson, Gunther Schuller and Jack Walrath. Adam Rogers’ guitar and Michael Rabinowitz’s bassoon dominate “Eclipse,” and the bassoon sounds much like a trombone. On “Invisible Lady,” a Walrath chart adapted by Michael Mossman, Elvis Costello joins the group on vocals, and his original lyrics, to superb effect. There’s a soaring trombone solo by Conrad Herwig on the tune as well.

Five performances by the big band complete the album. “Devil Woman,” arranged by baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, gives us the gutbucket Mingus. A coarse-voiced Frank Lacy sings the bluesy melody, and tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield explores the rawer textural expressions of his horn. The album’s piece de resistance is Johnson’s 16-minute arrangement of “Black Saint & Sinner Lady.” Alto saxophonist Alex Foster artfully adopts a tearful mood akin to Charlie Mariano’s lead on the original Mingus recording (1963) as the ensemble skillfully navigates the piece’s complex time and emotional changes.

Sue Mingus has given her late husband’s music extra life via the organic big band. Rather than creating a museumlike memorial, she has extrapolated Mingus into the future. His work wasn’t finished when he died in 1979, and Sue Mingus has shown the vision and tenacity to continue his larger-than-life mission. Her memoir, Tonight at Noon: A Love Story, appears at the same time as this recording. The album also marks the 80th anniversary Charles Mingus’ birth. It’s a fitting present.

Originally Published