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The Mingus Big Band Performance at the Jazz Concert

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I’m sure that in 40 years, I’ll have some great memories about my younger years. One of them will definitely be the jazz concert I attended that Thursday night on the Fez, located at 380 Lafayette St, right under the Time Caf. That as any other Thursday night, the center of attention was the famous “Mingus Big Band”, whose name keeps alive a great, and a little controversial jazz composer, Charles Mingus.

When I got there, the musicians were rehearsing, and talking about the performance. All of them played with their instruments, making sure that they will not cause any problem during the “feared” live act. The band was constituted of 12 artists who seemed to struggle trying to fit in that little platform. The wind instruments were located at the front of the band, composed by: a bassoon, a flute, a trumpet, a tenor saxophone, an alto saxophone, and even a soprano saxophone. Behind them, a French horn, a trombone and a bass saxophone. A drum kit with cymbals was the only percussion instrument that played in the band. The piano represented the keyboard family while a double bass and an electrical guitar represented the stringed instruments.

The band started with a ballad called “Noon night”. The protagonist of this piece was the French horn who played a solo. The bass and the trombone followed the solo in the background. The second piece, called “Eclipse” featured the electrical guitar and the bassoon. Both of them performed the same melody in their solos. In the first solo the melody was mellow and slow while in the second, it got faster and more joyful. This musical piece seemed to accelerate as time passed by. I still can remember the ecstatic and cheering crowd when the piece was over. The third piece, called “Haitian fight” was more dramatic than the rest. It resembled a chaotic mood, similar to a fight, as the name mentions it.

The three pieces are different in many ways, but they all seem to have the signature of the composer. All of them are modern jazz, which is characterized of being dissonant. The meter in all the pieces varies. “Noon night” was a ballad, slow and sometimes even melancholic. The tone color was not as rich as the other two pieces. In this piece, more woodwind instruments were used.

“Eclipse”, started slowly and then moved to a very fast tempo. In this piece most of the instruments actively participated. “Haitian fight” was introduced by the bass, which little by little moved to a dance beat. The rest of the instruments joined, trying to imitate a disorganized fight. The tone color in all the pieces was extremely rich, the band sounded homophonic no matter the improvisation. They did require a band leader who sometimes guided the rest.

The relation between prepared and improvised component was notorious in each piece. In all of the pieces the artists added some embellishments and they all in a magical way matched. During “Haitian Fight”, the trombonist even started yelling “Oh yeah”, which later on became part of the audience too. In the solos, each member of the band added his personal touch; sometimes the instruments even duplicated voices. It was extremely superb, since the group had homophony and their timing was right.

The soloists had more liberty in the performance. They become the center of attention by making their instrument sound more intense. The rest of the music becomes the background in which they develop. Each instrument in the solo had its magical moment. During the solos, the members who weren’t playing listen and enjoy somebody else’s solos, they applaud and even sometimes they decided to collaborate with a tune when the time is right. All the soloists made a wonderful job by carrying the performance forward.

Something I experienced in this presentation is that the players followed the original melodies and improvised only sometimes where was needed. I think they did not improvise more because of the ideology of the band, which is the celebration of the compositions of Charles Mingus.

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