Charles Mingus was one of the most vital, innovative jazz artists in the second half of the 20th century. His music seemed inseparably connected to his own formidable presence, to his capacity to shape and mold a theme while it was in the very process of being performed. So the notion of organizing a large ensemble to perform his works, often in arrangements by others, would seem, however worthwhile its intentions, to have implicit shortcomings.
But the Mingus Big Band--which appeared in concert at El Camino's Marsee Auditorium on Saturday night--brought the music to life in a fashion that probably would have pleased even the notoriously demanding Mingus himself. A 14-piece ensemble with a floating personnel lineup organized by his widow, Susan Mingus, it played such classics as "Tijuana Gift Shop," "Goodbye, Eric," "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion" and "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat" with an enthusiasm and involvement that both delineated and expanded the music's potential.
What became clear very quickly, in fact, was the richness of Mingus' compositions. Filled with a startling array of elements--suddenly shifting rhythms, deceptively naive-sounding melodies, unexpectedly lush harmonies--the works have a density that reaches beyond their jazz roots. More than almost any other jazz composer, his music transcends style and ethnicity, reflecting instead a multilayered view of the twists and turns of American society during Mingus' creative decades of the '40s, '50s and '60s (he was 56 when he died in 1979 of Lou Gehrig's disease).
The playing was generally excellent, with particularly fine work produced by trumpeters Eddie Henderson and Phillip Harper, bassist Boris Kazlov, and an all-star reed section of tenor saxophonists John Stubblefield and Seamus Blake, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, and alto saxophonists Bobbie Watson and Steve Slagle (who also did much of the conducting).
Yes, there were times when one wished for the sheer visceral energy that Mingus generated when he was present, for his capacity--especially when working with drummer Danny Richmond--to spontaneously shift and vary the unfolding rhythms of a work. But the Mingus Big Band countered that energy with a kind of communal dynamic. Not as intense as the Mingus presence, it was powerful nonetheless--notably so in the driving planes of rhythm beneath Harper's solo on "Goodbye, Eric," in Stubblefield's Mingus-like rap ("Momma's little baby don't like no shortnin' bread!") in the superb, extended rendering of "Cumbia & Jazz Fusion," and in the general air of supportive vocal enthusiasm that underscored most of the numbers in this constantly compelling performance.