Charles Mingus was a Promethean bass player and an underrated pianist, but his virtuoso instrument was the ensemble. Like Ellington, he composed specifically for his players' unique talents and personalities. It made for revelatory music -- but not a legacy that's easy to replicate and revive.
So when a group dares to take on the Mingus catalog, it's worth checking out. Friday night at the Harris Theater, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble dove in and made a joyous racket.
Mind you, I'm a pop critic, not a jazz aficionado. But Mingus is the bear that brought jazz home for me. When I heard his first Atlantic records, the great mountain of jazz seemed less daunting a climb. He was pretty rock and roll in many ways, and when people complained his jazz sounded like "hollering" he said thank you.
Like the best rock bands, Mingus put his ideas forward as a unit. A soloist, a combo -- they can't really do Mingus justice. Dana Hall, CJE's artistic director as well as its fleet and fluid drummer, noted during Friday's concert that Mingus compositions "require a collective personality." The CJE has that. It's a cool, calm personality -- the kind of stoic professionalism a Mingus chart loves to muck with -- but well-synced and more than up to the task of tackling what Hall admitted was "the hardest music we've ever played."
But what's difficult for the players isn't always difficult for the listener. That was part of Mingus' greatness. His pieces can swing like Basie, pumping pure heart and soul, then erupt with a squawking fury that demands the brain's participation, too. The CJE opened the show with "Number 29," a piece recorded only posthumously by the Mingus Big Band, that's just such a beast. It glides on a genteel rhythm, like a walk through the city, but it takes an angular route -- slowing down, revving up, exploding at the end in a fanfare of Hall's combustive drumming and the harmonious heaving of the horns.
Dan Nicholson on alto sax and Geof Bradfield on tenor made it look easy. For "Celia," a '57 tune Mingus titled after his wife, the versatile Nicholson was back, blowing romance, lurid suggestion, unfettered passion and back again. Pharez Whitted detonated his trumpet all over "Opus 4," an electrifying performance by the ensemble and featuring a pure rock and roll breakdown between Hall, the sly Jeff Parker on guitar and unflappable pianist Jeremy Kahn.
The latter featured the pronounced electric bass of special guest Meshell Ndegeocello (pictured above), an acclaimed artist almost as difficult to categorize as the evening's subject. She's an odd one, that Meshell. At the end of the graceful, conversational "Canon," the band looked to her for a finishing cue -- waiting, fading, eyes darting in her direction -- until she dropped her hands and said, "If you all are good with it, I'm good with it." She took to the spoken word of "Freedom" (adding some of her own words, like, "Stay fast, old mules. I know you're out there looking for jobs") and mustered an awkward breathy vocal for the Joni Mitchell version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat."
The first set featured another guest: the omnipresent and recently Grammy-nominated Christian McBride on acoustic bass. He's definitely got the "Mingus Fingers," spider-walking up and down the neck through that song's melody and wiping his brow when he finished, then skittering through "Bird Calls" and the neatly compartmentalized "Free Cell Block F 'Tis Nazi USA."
"Moanin'" is a groove that has it all; it's the perfect closer. Tim McNamara laid it down with gut-rumbling baritone sax, and the ensemble rode the pendulum again between Becker-Fagen-worthy Ellingtonia and wacky, dissonant punches and jabs. Chaos, order, expansion, contraction. McBride and Ndegeocello reflected it, too, the former stepping lively, the latter driving hard. Hot music well worth the trip out on a cold, snowy night.