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Tag: Wayne Escoffery

A Historic, Ferocious Return to the East Village by the Mingus Big Band

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.

Everybody’s Jumping Out of Their Shoes to Play Central Park

What a pleasure it was to walk down the hill to the Central Park mall on Sunday afternoon without being assaulted by the tedious, computerized whoomp-whoomp that all the druggies would be dancing to in years past. Instead, the sounds were organic. A guy with an acoustic guitar. A bunch of southern kids having a picnic and listening to twangy Nashville pop on a big boombox. Ralph Williams, tall and resolute, running sinuous riffs solo on tenor sax as he’s been doing since forever at the far end of the benches by the bandshell. The Dark Sky Hustlers playing expertly slinky, vampy funk instrumentals in the middle of the mall.

And at the south end, four of the foremost musicians in jazz, busking.

OK, this wasn’t your typical busker gig. Photographer Jimmy Katz and his nonprofit Giant Step Arts began booking top-tier jazz talent there on the weekends last fall, as a way to help keep New York musicians solvent in the time since Andrew Cuomo criminalized live music venues. Katz is keeping the series going this year, working with drummer Nasheet Waits on the booking side and Jazz Generation’s Keyed Up program for sponsorship. Sunday’s allstar lineup was the kind that people pay a hundred dollars a ticket for at swanky festivals: Wayne Escoffery on tenor sax, Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Dezron Douglas on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. At the peak of the quartet’s first set, there might have been forty people scattered around the area. Where was everybody else? In the middle of the mall, watching the Dark Sky Hustlers. More about that later.

But even with the sonic competition from the Hustlers’ loud guitar amp, this was the place to be for a set of classics. The four players took a winding staircase up into Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown, Escoffery’s flurrying solo contrasting with Pelt’s spacious, allusively modal approach. The way Pelt shadowed Escoffery at halfspeed or thereabouts, as they wound it down to a brief drum solo, was the kind of sage, perfectly executed moment so many jazz fans have had to turn to albums and youtube clips to find over the past year.

The rest of the set underscored the group’s combined erudition, each a bandleader in his own right. By the time they’d made it halfway through a roughly ten-minute, hard-swinging, anthemically bluesy take of Joe Henderson’s Punjab, Blake was already getting hot, throwing elbows and jabbing when least expected. Kenny Dorham’s Short Story was more of a short novel, from a snazzy latin intro to swinging sizzle from Escoffery and Pelt and a rat-a-tat coda from Blake that he could have kept going for twice as long and everybody still would have wanted more. They closed with a ballad, If Ever I Would Leave You, the drummer immediately cracking the whip when it was apparent that the Strat across the way was drowning out the horns. When Douglas went to take a spare, plaintive solo, the guitar went silent: pure serendipity.

After the set was over, the Dark Sky Hustlers were still going, and it turned out that they were good at what they were doing: loopmusic, essentially. The Strat player has a deep bag of Memphis and New Orleans licks, and used them voluminously over one slowly undulating two-chord vamp after another, stashed away in his loop pedal.

Therein lies the joy and also the hazard of playing public spaces. The elephant in the room, of course, is Cuomo: if clubs were open at capacity, all of these musicians could continue their careers without jousting for sonic space. What’s most ironic here is that had the Dark Sky Hustlers known who was playing just a few hundred feet away, they might have joined the crowd. They’re a funk band; Johnathan Blake plays in Dr. Lonnie Smith‘s group. And there’s nobody funkier than him.

This spring’s lineup of jazz talent in the park is just as off the hook as this group. This coming Saturday, April 10 there’s a twinbill starting at noon with alto saxophonist  Sarah Hanahan leading a trio with bassist Phil Norris and drummer Robert Lotreck followed at 1:30 by iconic free jazz bassist William Parker‘s Trio with Cooper-Moore plus Hamid Drake on percussion at Summit Rock in Seneca Village in Central Park – enter at 82nd St. on the west side. Hanahan and her trio return on Sunday the 11th at the same time, followed at 1:30 by intense tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana leading hers with Pablo Menares on bass and Kush Abadey on drums. It’s not likely that there will be any funk bands to compete with up there.

Monty Alexander Brings Jamdown Jazz Full Circle at the Charlie Parker Festival

Yesterday evening at the uptown Saturday night edition of this year’s Charlie Parker Festival, Monty Alexander explained that his most recent free outdoor concert here had been in Central Park. He didn’t bother to mention that his mid-90s performance there with guitarist Ernie Ranglin was one of the landmark musical events in this city over the past 25 years.

The pianist and leader of the Harlem-Kingston Express told the crowd that when he’d been booked for yesterday’s show, he’d asked the festival organizers where he’d be playing. When he found out that it would be Marcus Garvey Park, his response was, “Marcus Garvey Park? But Marcus Garvey is Jamaican!”

The exuberant reggae-jazz icon added that he hoped the park’s name wouldn’t be changed back to what it used to be (it was still Mount Morris Park back in 1967 when Alexander led a completely different band several blocks west at Minton’s).

Shifting into serious mode, he and the group launched into an amped-up version of the Burning Spear classic Marcus Garvey. Joshua Thomas, the group’s electric bassist sang it in a strong, soulful tenor, then in a split second the group segued into So What and took the tune doublespeed.  All this dovetailed with the circumstances: Wynton Kelly, the pianist on Miles Davis’ original, was also Jamaican.

Until around the time of that legendary Central Park show, Alexander was regarded as a traditionalist and an expert at ballads. The collaboration with Ranglin, a fellow Jamaican icon, was a game-changer, and their reinvention of Bob Marley classics won both of them a global following far beyond the jazz world. Yet, as Alexander explained, he’s no less a jazz guy for loving reggae riddims. For Alexander, just like Ellington, there are two kinds of music.

This band is very much the first kind. There are two drummers, two basses and two keyboards including Alexander. Most of the time the Jamaican guys play the reggae material and the Americans do the swing stuff, but there’s plenty of overlap, and when both drummers and both bassists are going strong the sound can be epic.

One of the evening’s most anthemic, incisive numbers sounded like a version of the Abyssinians’s Satta Massagana: as with much of the other material, Alexander made a doublespeed swing blues out of it, then returned back to the original theme to wind it down. A little later, they used the opening riff from Marley’s Could You Be Loved to stir up a similar stew. 

The most riveting solo of the night was from bassist Hassan Shakur, juxtaposing crushing chords and ghostly harmonics with a bluesy drive way up the fingerboard. Drummer Carl Radle played thunderous vaudeville against the beat, all but drowning the rest of the crew during his one irresistibly fun solo moment. Similarly, saxophonist Wayne Escoffery went for adrenaline, especially during the Coltrane solo in So What; the band’s trombonist was a bluesy, more low key foil.

Meanwhile, the electronic keyboardist played mostly clickety-clack clavinova behind Alexander’s spacious chords and regal blues phrases, adding organ on the biggest hit with the crowd, No Woman No Cry. They closed with a coy calypso medley that veered into Hava Nagila for a few bars, Alexander spiraling around on his melodica.

This was a tantalizingly short set, especially for these guys, which may portend what’s in store this afternoon at Tompkins Square Park where the festival began in 1993. Festivities start at 3 with a trio of young guns: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and vibraphonist Joel Ross. Iconic, rapturous AACM pianist/organist Amina Claudine Myers follows at 4, there’s a corporate jazz act whose new pianist is way better than the last one, then postbop sax vet Gary Bartz leading a quartet to close things out at around 6. You might want to bring a folding chair if you have one because blanket space on the lawn will be limited.

Revisiting Some Classics by Mingus and His Many Advocates

Trombonist Ku’Umba Frank Lacy is a mainstay of the New York jazz scene, with a list of recording and touring credits a mile long as a both a bandleader and sideman. His Live at Smalls album, a red-hot straight-up postbop sextet date at the well-loved West Village basement spot, got a big thumbs-up here in 2014. And as big band fans know, Lacy is also an excellent singer with a distinctively gritty, dynamic low register. New Yorkers have at least three chances to catch him over the next week or so. He’s leading his own group on Dec 5 at 10:30 PM at Smalls, their usual haunt; cover is $20. In addition, he’ll be with the Mingus Big Band at the weekly Monday night Mingus ensembles’ residency at the Jazz Standard on Nov 27 and Dec 4, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is $25

Lacy’s latest album with the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings – streaming at Spotify – is his star turn in the studio with the group. Although Charles Mingus’ music pretty much speaks for itself, he was an underrated wordsmith, and there are four tracks here representing his poetic side, along with others by Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, and a rarity  by his widow and longtime champion Sue Mingus.

Interestingly, Lacy doesn’t play on this record, although the band otherwise is as much of an allstar outfit as it always its, comprising trumpeters Alex Norris, Jack Walrath and the late Lew Soloff; trombonists Coleman Hughes, Conrad Herwig and Earl McIntyre; saxophonists Craig Handy, Wayne Escoffery, Alex Foster, Ronnie Cuber, Abraham Burton and Brandon Wright; bassists Boris Kozlov and Mike Richmond; pianists David Kikoski and Helen Sung, and drummer Donald Edwards.

The material spans the iconic composer’s career, from bustling swing to haunting third-stream epics. Lacy narrates Langston Hughes’ poetic commentary over slowly swaying lustre and then fingerpopping swing in Consider Me, a pensive Stormy Monday-inspired first-person commentary on black empowerment. Clearly, not much has changed in sixty years.

Dizzy Profile, part elegant waltz, part brisk swing, is a mighty, knowing reminder of how much controversy the pioneers of hard bop faced; again, somewhat ironically, it’s Coleman Hughes who gets to take a sagacious trombone solo instead of Lacy.

Weird Nightmare, as you would expect, is one of the real standouts on the album: Lacy holds back to let Mingus’ angst and longing really resonate while the band builds an eerily surreal backdrop. Portrait comes across as quite a contrast between the lyrics and the regal, almost somber quality of the music, animated by solos from Walrath and Handy. Another stunner, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat – with the first of the Joni Mitchell lyrics – is awash in grim, close harmonies, introduced by a gently plaintive Kikoski piano solo, Handy contributing a pensive, achingly angst-fueled alto solo.

Sweet Sucker Dance – from Mingus and Mitchell’s 1979 collaboration – has an infinitely more purist, epic sweep compared to the original and really does justice to Mitchell’s bittersweet, detailed character study. Likewise, Lacy digs in and wraps his tongue around Invisible Lady’s torrents of Elvis Costello noir iconography over murderous, tense  harmonies and nonstop, shadowy urban bustle: it’s the rare resurrection of a classic where the new lyrical dimension isn’t hopelessly ponderous.

Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, which Mingus did write all by himself, is surprisingly restrained here: Cuber blows some purist blues spirals and Lacy saves his biggest melismatic moment for this one. Contrastingly, Dry Cleaner From Des Moines has a jaunty rumble to match Mitchell’s surreal beatnik narrative.

Noonlight – the one real obscurity here, posthumously discovered along with the scores for Mingus’ magnum opus, Epitaph – gets its lyrics and title from Sue Mingus. It turns out to be a saturnine-tinged but catchy and ultimately cheery ballad, shifting matter-ofl-factly between meters.

Mitchell’s lowdown vernacular and imperturbable narrative fit seamlessly with Chair in the Sky, with its sly bluesiness and unstoppable upward trajectory  – and Lacy has a ball matching its unhinged exuberance. Eclipse, the final number with Mingus’ words and music, is typically symphonic, a study in contrasts, slinky latin ballad morphing into towering anthem, Foster’s flute nailing both when the time comes. The final track is the second-line strut Jelly Roll, with a Costello lyric to match. It’s a good bet that most Mingus diehards already have this album, or at least have it playlisted somewhere; if not, hell, why not now?