The Mingus tribute was one of the most promising: Mingus’s old friend — and the doyen of jazz/classical “Third Stream” crossover — Gunther Schuller was to conduct a 10-piece ensemble in some of the master’s most challenging pieces. You always figure there will be a bit of talk with a Schuller performance, but on Saturday some pieces were doubly explained, once by Gunther and once by Mingus’s widow, Sue, the force behind all the various official Mingus-repertory bands. It made for an amusing hour with one less piece than had been scheduled. It also had the unintended effect of condescending to jazz — and patronizing the audience — since Schuller couldn’t help but make the point that these were “real” compositions, through-composed, and that Mingus had aspired to be a classical composer. That said, if the band didn’t have the roiling propulsion you can hear whenever the Mingus Big Band play the Regattabar, these were telling performances of pieces that rarely get played — “Half-Mast Inhibition,” “Todo Modo” — with all of Mingus’s varied textures and tempos and shifts in mood. And it was a kick to see Schuller — who was a prodigy French-horn player with the Metropolitan Opera as well as Miles Davis’s nonet — chuckling appreciatively at horn player John Clark’s cellar-dwelling low notes.
Just about all the legacy bands included principals associated with the originals. If Eliane Elias isn’t exactly the most Evans-like of pianists, the bass player in the band (and Elias’s husband), Mark Johnson, was with his last trio. And Elias, Johnson, and drummer Billy Hart engaged in the simultaneous three-way chatter that was a hallmark of the very first Evans trios. No, Freelon and Reeves don’t have a lot to do with Billie and Ella — at least, not any more than any woman singing jazz can be said to descend from them. If Reeves bears a resemblance to anyone, it’s Sarah Vaughan. On the other hand, there were Jimmy Heath and James Moody in the Gillespie band — two of Dizzy’s closest associates, both sounding terrific. And the line-up also included younger stalwarts like Roy Hargrove. Oddly not a part of the Gillespie band was Jon Faddis, one of his greatest acolytes, who played on the Pavilion side stage with his Teranga band. Faddis used to get knocked for sounding too much like Gillespie, but in this case it was great to hear that Dizzy sound in the flesh — not just the high-note acrobatics but those odd, funny little descending patterns, with all their humor and deep pleasure. It was typical that a young student would be waiting off stage, horn in hand, for Faddis to call him up.
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