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Chamber Jazz - Mingus Orchestra at Merkin Hall

- Classical and Cultural Connections

Kaufman Center Presents
Chamber Jazz Mingus Orchestra

Featuring: Craig Handy (alto and soprano saxophone, flute and clarinet), Seamus Blake (tenor and soprano saxophone), Michael Rabinowitz (bassoon), Vincent Chancey (French horn), Kenny Rampton (trumpet), Doug Yates (bass and contra bass clarinet), Freddy Bryant (guitar), Donald Edwards (drums), Boris Kozlov (bass) and Conrad Herwig (trombone).

At Merkin Concert Hall
(Merkin Website)
Press: Kim Smith Public Relations

Andy McDonough
November 30, 2006

(See a September 6, 2005 Review of Charles Mingus Big Band.)


(All compositions written by Charles Mingus)
Tonight at Noon
Chill of Death
Todo Modo
Jelly Roll
- Intermission -
All the things you could be now if Sigmund Freud's wife was your mother
Half Mast Inhibition
Noon Night
Taurus in the Arena of Life (World Premiere)

It's likely that most visitors to the Kaufman Center's intimate 450-seat, Merkin Concert Hall, were acquainted with the unique orchestral works of jazz legend Charles Mingus and so were braced and eager for the wild ride through tonal centers, rhythmic diversity and the oblique juxtaposition of sonorities that awaited them. A surprise, however, was in store for even the most devoted student of the Mingus tradition as world renowned composer and conductor, Gunther Schuller, guided the "edgy" and jazz-rooted Mingus Orchestra through his own arrangements of three Mingus compositions, effectively melding two great minds into one genius performance.

Opening the evening were a series of diverse Mingus compositions arranged by Sy Johnson and loosely conducted by alto saxophonist, Craig Handy. The first work, Tonight at Noon, opened with drum soloing by Donald Edwards, whose hard-swinging cymbal rides and expert bass drum techniques would compliment both big band and orchestral allusions throughout the evening. Drums and collective improvisation dominated this piece that seemed to find the orchestra warming up to Merkin Hall.

With the evening underway and the orchestra hitting its pace, the second selection Chill of Death more than hinted at the expert abilities of arranger, Sy Johnson, in exploiting interesting combinations of instruments (French horn and trombone, flute and bass clarinet), classical guitar, and the use of symphonic techniques to draw this piece in the direction of familiar European classical forms. Mingus composed this sophisticated piece, reminiscent of a movie score, when he was only seventeen, while he still believed his musical direction might be classical rather than modern jazz.

Next, Eclipse treated listeners to an island feel again, featuring classical guitar, but with very strong jazz chordal-melodic moves expertly rendered by Freddy Bryant. The piece wends its way from melancholy open orchestration into a rich bossa nova style that bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Donald Edwards, with snares off, periodically nudge towards samba. This rhythmic style provides a perfect backdrop for the virtuoso bassoon playing of Michael Rabinowitz who dazzled and endeared listeners with energy, bluesy style, and grace rarely heard from this instrument.

Once again challenging the boundaries of classical and jazz tradition, Todo Modo, commissioned in 1975 for a movie soundtrack, is a unique blend of styles calling for musicians-and audience-to "change gears" between orchestral nuance and big band swing. Trumpeter Kenny Rampton's dramatic statements of theme open the piece in which ensemble anchor, Craig Handy, lifts the audience more than once with inventive alto saxophone improvisations. Both players, along with French hornist, Vincent Chancey, show a remarkable ability to stand firmly in either classical or jazz modes, as well as a willingness to bridge the gaps in between.

Closing the first half of the program was a romp in vintage New Orleans style, entitled Jelly Roll, that opens with a masterful display of trombone techniques by Conrad Herwig, who pedals, tongues and slurs the opening tones to this trip back to two-beat jazz. With plungers and mutes in hand, solos progress from "old school" to modern, with innovative soloing by bass clarinetist, Doug Yates. Yates, who starts out tentatively, brings the unfamiliar dulcet tones of the bass and contra bass clarinet to life in a swing band context.

After a brief intermission, Craig Handy conducted a cursory discussion of the provocative song title, All the things you could be by now if Sigmund Freud's wife was your mother, explaining the composition's similar chordal structure to the more popular jazz standard, Jerome Kern's, All the Things You Are. The Mingus piece is expertly arranged and executed by bassist, Boris Kozlov, who, throughout all the works, displayed some of the finest articulation and intonation on upright bass. Kozlov should also be recognized for his seamless transition from jazz to classical techniques that ranged from a bedrock-solid walking style with lots of rhythmic interest to his silky smooth arcs and precise pizzicato passages. With a little something for everyone, this piece even featured a lyrical baroque interlude, a touch of rudimental drumming and challenging polyrhythms.

The next three Mingus compositions, Half Mast Inhibition, Noon Night and Taurus in the Arena of Lifewere arranged and conducted by Gunther Schuller. While there seemed to be some looseness to the ensemble initially, the sound quickly gelled into a jazz chamber orchestra that truly embodied Schuller's moniker for the hybrid of jazz and classical music, "third stream". Schuller's baton seemed to concentrate the playing of these expert jazz players, whose efforts through his arrangements culminated in Schuller's final arrangement, Taurus in the Arena of Life. With heavily syncopated section play; pronounced three-over-four sections and accelerando, this piece seemed to present the biggest challenge to the small orchestra, but yielded the highest musical result. It was the perfect vehicle for a breathy and adventurous tenor saxophone solo by Seamus Blake. And while some of the musicians seemed more adept to classical nuances of the Schuller's complex arrangements than others, all rallied to create a sensational final movement of Taurus.

Closing out the evening was Slop, a gospel piece, with far-ranging feels from elegant, "Neil Hefti"-like, big band blends to rowdy soloing, clapping and band shouts. Kenny Rampton's raucous trumpet (with plunger) starts off soloing that doesn't end until the entire ensemble is standing and soloing independently, while the rhythm section swings hard for several joyful choruses, bringing the ensemble to a rousing finish.

The audience was on its feet as Gunther Schuller was called back up for a standing ovation. Sue Mingus and, arranger, Sy Johnson, both in attendance, were recognized from the stage with much applause. When the orchestra returned to its stations, the audience was greeted with the familiar boisterous bass ostinato, heralding the start of a traditional Mingus favorite, Haitian Fight Song, as a fitting encore.

As any jazz buff will tell you, Mingus is not about musical sensibility; neither is Mingus about respecting traditional musical boundaries or mores. What Mingus is about is musical and emotional exploration and risk taking. Nowhere is the rich and adventuresome musical legacy of Mingus in better hands than with the Mingus Orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller, himself a giant figure in both modern and traditional musical styles.

Of Thursday's event, ensemble member, Craig Handy said, "Working with Mr. Schuller takes the group to another level, entirely. It's through his attention, and the attention of other great musicians, that the true genius of Charles Mingus is finally being discovered for what it is-genius on many levels."

For more information on the Mingus Orchestra, click here. The Mingus Orchestra regularly appears in rotation with the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Dynasty on Tuesdays at the Iridium Jazz Club located at 51st and Broadway in NYC. For more information and scheduled performances visit

(From program notes) The Charles Mingus Orchestra is an established ensemble that began alternating performances with its older sibling, the Mingus Big Band, during a 14-year tenure at New York's Fez Under Time Café. In November 2004, the Mingus Big Band moved to the Iridium club in midtown. Assembled in 1999 by Sue Mingus, the Mingus Orchestra plays with the intensity of the Mingus Big Band, but with a focus on composition and less emphasis on soloing. Its distinctive sound emerges from an expanded repertory and more exotic instrumentation, including bassoon, bass clarinet, French horn and guitar-instrument not heard in the Big Band ensemble. The other six instruments are chaired by musicians that also play in the Big Band and include drums, bass, trombone, trumpet, alto and tenor saxophone, with additional doubling on flute, soprano and clarinet.

Craig Handy, saxophonist, and Michael Rabinowitz, bassoon, congratulate Guest Conductor, Gunther Schuller, on the premiere performance of his arrangement of Charles Mingus' "Taurus in the Arena of Life" at Merkin Concert Hall.
Photo courtesy of Andy McDonough

For more information, contact Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower at