Last night a fired-up, sold-out standing-room-only crowd at Drom got to witness the Mingus Big Band’s historic return to the neighborhood where Sue Mingus first pulled together some of the greatest musicians in jazz to play her iconic husband’s repertoire. Almost thirty years down the road, the current version of the world’s most formidable large jazz ensemble brought out every moment of irony, bliss, revolutionary politics cynical humor and frequent venom in a stampeding set of some of bassist Charles Mingus’ best-loved tunes.
This was the Mingus Big Band’s first performance since March of 2020, and they were obviously amped to be able to play for an audience at long last. They’ve traded the now-shuttered Jazz Standard for Drom, which has even better sound, similarly good food and a much more romantic ambience. But this show wasn’t about romance, it was about adrenaline.
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery advised the crowd that they were watching some of the world’s greatest musicians, but he modestly didn’t count himself among them. He let his horn tell that story, pulling an elegy for a long-gone jazzman out of thin air, first with pensive, bluesy phrases that grew more mournful and then tormented, with a series of cruelly ratcheting, downward cascades. Then the band launched into a dynamically rich, stormy take of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Mingus’ requiem for Lester Young.
Throughout the night, solos bristled with displays of extended technique. Just as Escoffery had done, baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian blended keening, shivery harmonics and duotones into her own opening solo, equal parts smoke and fire. Bass trombonist Earl McIntyre – who played with Mingus himself – went for cartoon humor but also spectacular range in his own closing solo.
Pianist David Kikoski’s sudden, deft shift from genial bluesiness to phantasmagoria in a tantalizing solo during the opening number, Gunslinging Birds, speaks to the depth of the group’s immersion in this material. Likewise, drummer Donald Edwards’ hypnotically turbulent solo lured Mingus’ irony-drenched Charlie Parker homage into wee-hours Alphabet City shadows.
Bassist Boris Kozlov and trombonist Conrad Herwig brought pure moody noir to a slinky, shapeshifting cha-cha take of Invisible Lady, a far more obscure number, springboarding off an arrangement by Jack Walrath. Solo-centric as this band always are, the hectic urban bustle and contrasting moments of nocturnal lustre were just as magnetic to witness.
Since reopening, Drom has not only become home to some of the creme de la creme of the Jazz Standard crowd, but also to refugees from the now-shuttered Jazz at Lincoln Center. The next concert in the comfortable, basement-level venue’s ongoing summer jazz festival is tomorrow night. July 31 at 8 PM with 90s acid jazz pioneers Groove Collective; cover is $20.