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Mingus Big Band: Blues and Politics

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Mingus Big Band has to play something akin to Russian roulette to avoid becoming just another repertory band; Mingus’ music demands an element of desperation and reckless abandon to be done justice. Blues & Politics is a tacit acknowledgment that with each album the ante is raised and the odds are longer, as the Sue Mingus-produced organization seems now committed to a series of concept albums, a potentially lethal gambit. But, for now, it is working, as the album’s juxtaposition of some of his most poignant, personal compositions (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) and his most well-known, forceful social commentary (“Haitian Fight Song”) underscores the depth and volatility of Mingus’ emotions and the purity of his moral outrage.

Mingus Big Band spins the barrel at the outset, splicing excerpts from a ’65 Mingus performance onto a new reading of “Freedom.” The track begins with Mingus’ spoken text from “It Was a Lonely Day in Selma, Alabama,” accompanied by the marginalia of Charles McPherson, Lonnie Hillyer, and Dannie Richmond. Mingus is then heard speaking the opening of “Freedom” in an overdubbed call and response with MBB members, signaling the start of the new version. After a blistering tenor solo by Mark Shim, Eric Mingus walks on for a couple of lines, and the piece ends with a cross-fade to the conclusion of the ’65 Mingus recitation, augmented by a few notes from Jaki Byard. Take away the archival material, and the piece has more than the requisite BTUs; with it, it’s a shot away from Nat and Natalie Cole. Fortunately, it clicks, as is also the case with Eric Mingus’ recitation on “Don’t Let It Happen Here.”

Over the course of repeated listenings, however, there are other tracks that hold up better, particularly the expansive readings of “Meditations on a Pair of Wire Cutters” and “Little Royal Suite.” “Meditations” is a piece with demanding passages for both full orchestra and small groups; on this version, the interplay between flutist Alex Foster, pianist David Kikoski, and bassist Boris Kozlov on “Meditations” is precisely nuanced, while the full band’s statement and recapitulation of the romantic theme with the short double-time passage (which frames a solid solo by altoist Vincent Herring) are finely gauged. “Dedicated to Roy Eldridge,” “Little Royal Suite” has some of Mingus’ most potent trumpet parts, which Randy Brecker, Earl Gardner, and Alex Sipiagin (a strong, graceful soloist) simply nail.