Most so-called “jazz repertory acts” are little more than poser cover bands. Sure, they may try to keep memories alive, carry on the tradition, and teach the children well, but their sterile emphasis on authenticity tends to reduce the once-vibrant scores of jazz pioneers to stuffy museum pieces. Mingus Big Band, however, is different. Founded in 1991 by Sue Mingus, the feisty widow of legendary bassist and composer Charles Mingus, the 14-piece ensemble functions as both an ongoing vehicle for fresh interpretations of Mingus' songbook and a tough-minded proving ground for up-and-coming improvisers.
When not on the road, the group's rotating cast of players performs weekly at Fez, a small underground club in New York City's East Village. There, renowned vets and former Mingus allies (saxophonist John Stubblefield, trumpeter Randy Brecker) and relative young-bloods (bassist Boris Kozlov, saxophonist Seamus Blake) work out dynamic arrangements of classic tracks such as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and “Haitian Fight Song.” Far from the usual note-for-note idol worship, the ensemble's work mirrors Mingus' objectives: fire, flow, punch, surprise, and dead-on musicianship. True to his legacy, the players feel compelled each night to push — and thereby rediscover — themselves, adding their own heartfelt meanings to the thorny compositions.
Over time the group has been recognized as one of the era's hottest large orchestras, frequently topping international jazz polls and twice being nominated for a Grammy. Its most recent album, 1999's Blues & Politics, is an impassioned marriage of Mingus' blues roots and outspoken social criticisms. If you plan to see one jazz repertory act this season, it should be Mingus Big Band.