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Mingus Big Band

The Mingus Big Band: Returning to the Stage By Seton Hawkins / Use the ISSUU link to read the full interview

While the return to live performance throughout the year has proven slow and at times faltering, New York City’s jazz scene has nevertheless enjoyed precious opportunities to celebrate and breathe collective sighs of relief. Indeed, this month offers such a moment, as the Mingus Big Band returns with a weekly residency by performing on Tuesday nights at The Django. While famed for its long association with the Jazz Standard, the band abruptly found itself without a permanent home as the new year rang in, following the Jazz Standard’s December 2020 closure as a casualty of the pandemic. While the closedown left the band’s fortunes for the coming year uncertain, the upcoming residency spells an exciting new possibility, and hopefully the beginning of a longstanding relationship with a new performance home.

For the ensemble’s bassist and music director Boris Kozlov, the return is a welcome and promising one, facilitated by a dedicated team managing the estate and legacy of Charles Mingus. “We are so lucky to have the Mingus office, who found this gig for us,” he notes. “The Mingus Big Band is a huge organism with a book of about 150 pieces, some of which are 20 minutes long. So, you really need a residency to even get through a quarter of the music we have.” To be sure, the band’s performances at the Jazz Standard had become the stuff of legend for fans: Mingus’ diverse catalogue of ecstatic works rendered in exciting new arrangements for large ensemble rightly stood for years as one of the highlights of New York’s jazz scene. The loss of the band’s standing performances was truly devastating to many, and the quick recovery and adjustment is a testament to the adaptability and tenacity of the team supporting Mingus’ legacy. 

Indeed, the work of the Charles Mingus Institute is an exceptionally robust one. Initially spearheaded by Sue Mingus, the institute has embraced an incredible array of activities, from a high school festival and competition, to teaching clinics, to three different performing ensembles—the 14-piece Mingus Big Band, the 10-piece Charles Mingus Orchestra and the seven-piece Mingus Dynasty—all dedicated to promoting Mingus’ music and expanding its role in the jazz world today. While initiated by Sue Mingus, the many musical projects also bear the imprint of Boris’ own influence as musical director, whose leadership as well as arranging insights have helped to maintain a staggering consistency in quality across the projects for years. For Boris, it has been a dream come true. “It has been a blessing to be able to make arrangements and write for the skills of people like Conrad Herwig, Ronnie Cuber, John Stubblefield, to write for not just any band but for the Mingus Big Band,” he enthuses.

As this New York institution returns to public performance—further buoyed by the hope that the weekly series becomes a longstanding residency—the Mingus Big Band finds its return to shows occurring at a particularly fortuitous time, as the jazz world gears up for Mingus’ centennial celebration in April 2022. While the pandemic has hamstrung concrete touring plans, a tour of both the Midwest and of Europe for the big band is currently in place for next year, and a new recording also looms on the horizon for the centennial celebration. “We did a pretty massive recording project in January 2020, and recorded 22 songs,” Boris notes. “From that, we’ve selected the music for an initial centennial album, and I know the office is working on its release.” With previous releases from the Mingus organization including the stellar 2015 Mingus Sings project by the big band alongside Ku-umba Frank Lacy as well as the Grammy Award-winning 2011 masterpiece Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard, the prospect of new material from this ensemble—particularly a multi-disc series—is both exciting and overdue news for fans.

Ultimately, the uncertainties of the coming months lead to many question marks for the specifics of the ensemble’s performance and educational opportunities in the coming year. Nevertheless, as the Mingus Big Band returns to weekly shows, Boris is confident that a path will be found and that the centennial will be celebrated. “We will be ready, no matter what,” he notes.

The Mingus Big Band performs Tuesday nights at The Django throughout October.

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Paul Jost

Winning Spins by George Kanzler / Use the ISSUU link to read the full review 

The two singers considered here both infuse their music with a social consciousness, engaging with the real world. Judy Wexler does it through reimaging songs of the ’60s, the Woodstock era, while Paul Jost begins the two volumes of his new release with topical songs and recitations, framing the mostly standards that follow in topicality. While We Were Gone, Vols. 1&2, Paul Jost Quartet (2 CDs, self-released), features the suede-toned voice and occasional harmonica of the singer, along with trios led by pianist Jim Ridl. Each volume begins with Paul addressing, through recitations and songs picked for their topical relevance, the George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 invasion of the Capitol, respectively. “Poetic Justice” on Vol. 1 combines an opening solo harmonica version of “Shenandoah” with spoken word, spirited scatting and a brief excerpt of “Who Says?” (where the time goes). Vol. 2 opens with “January 6th, An Appeal for Reason,” with recitation and lyrics from Paul, combined with Nas’ “If I Ruled the World.” Each volume continues with pop, jazz and pop-folk standards, often given a novel twist by Paul’s inventive interpretations.

Paul shares one piece of repertoire with Judy, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” but he begins it with the instrumental intro of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” interpolates some new lyrics of his own with Fred’s and mixes singing with parlando (the sing-talk hybrid made famous by Mabel Mercer). He also scats, distinctively, originally, before a strong piano solo from Jim, then takes it out as a lone talking voice. He brings a winsome romantic cast to Randy Newman’s mysteriously evocative “Feels Like Home,” singing with just Jim’s piano for much of the track. His own “Livin’ In the Wrong Time,” a response to the events that triggered BLM, is another tender ballad treatment, but morphs into falsetto keening in its coda.

Paul, like the late Mark Murphy, is adventurous with the melodies and harmonies of standards, bringing fresh perspectives to such chestnuts as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “A Beautiful Friendship” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” He can swing riotously too, as he does on uptempo romps like “Centerpiece,” the Harry Edison classic for Count Basie, where he adds his own lyrics to the vocalese of Jon Hendricks, and his surprisingly up version of “My Foolish Heart,” complete with scat choruses. But he’s also capable of bringing out the melancholy of “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz, and reconfiguring the melody of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” a highlight of his ventures into pop-rock repertoire.

Paul Jost brings his trio—including Jim Ridl on keyboard and Dean Johnson on bass—to North Square’s brunch Oct. 3, with Tim Horner on drums at Soapbox Gallery Oct. 5 and Deer Head Inn Oct. 29.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Broady

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Judy Wexler

Winning Spins by George Kanzler / Use the ISSUU link to read the full review 

The two singers considered here both infuse their music with a social consciousness, engaging with the real world. Judy Wexler does it through reimaging songs of the ’60s, the Woodstock era, while Paul Jost begins the two volumes of his new release with topical songs and recitations, framing the mostly standards that follow in topicality. 

Back to the Garden, Judy Wexler (Jewel City Jazz), takes its title from Joni Mitchell’s composition about the defining event of 1960s rock, “Woodstock,” although she does not include that piece. She does include Joni’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” delivered over a springy rhythm from a quartet featuring Larry Koonse’s clangy guitar. Danny Janklow’s alto sax takes a short solo and plays obbligati behind Judy, adding his instrumental comments to the call-response of Judy and a female chorus on “They paved paradise” answered by “put up a parking lot.” 

The album begins with The Youngbloods’ 1969 hit, “Get Together,” delivered over a loose, Coltrane quartet-like rhythm, with ringing guitars (Larry and Bob Thiele Jr.) and female vocal backgrounds. It ends with the Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” first made a hit in the U.S. by Judy Collins. The two most overtly socio-political numbers are Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” given a wistful twist by Judy’s melodious voice and an arrangement with melodica and strings, and Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” echoing the Buffalo Springfield arrangement with prominent guitar solos and obbligati from Larry. 

Other tracks, such as “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” and Paul Simon’s “American Tune” suggest an emotional toll; while some mine tenderer feelings, including a hopeful version of Carol King’s “Up On the Roof,” and a fresh take on “Since You’ve Asked” by Judy Collins. A gentle, loping rhythm and Hendrik Meurkens’ harmonica propel Fred Neil’s enigmatic classic “Everybody’s Talkin’,” while Dylan’s “Forever Young” veers toward the ethereal with a lush version replete with female chorus. Throughout, Judy manages to reinvigorate these mostly ’60s classics with fresh approaches.

Judy Wexler sings with trios led by pianist Jim Ridl joined by drummer Tim Horner, with bassists Essiet Essiet at Pangea Oct. 6 and Bill Moring at The Side Door Oct. 9.

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Ravi Coltrane

Ravi Coltrane: The Wise One, by Eugene Holley, Jr / Use the ISSUU link to read the full interview    

The Long Island-born, Brooklyn-based tenor/soprano saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s week-long engagement at The Village Vanguard confirms his status as a veteran on the jazz scene for the past three decades. The son of the legendary John and Alice Coltrane, named after the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, the younger Ravi garnered solid credentials as a sideman with many established jazz stars including Steve Coleman, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Geri Allen and the late Chick Corea. “I’ve been out here for a minute,” Ravi says with a laugh.

He’s released six recordings as a leader from 1998 to 2012. A three-time Grammy Award nominee, Ravi’s latest nomination was in 2016 for Best Improvised Jazz Solo on the track “In Movement,” the title selection from a release Ravi recorded with bassist Matt Garrison—son of bassist Jimmy Garrison, who was a member of the classic Ravi quartet of the ’60s—and drummer John DeJohnette.

Ravi’s engagement at The Vanguard features two groups. “I’ll be playing with a trio with Dezron Douglas on bass and drummer Johnathan Blake from Philadelphia, from Tuesday to Thursday,” Ravi says. “For the rest of the week, I’ll be playing [in a larger group] with Lonnie Plaxico on bass, drummer Elé Howell and David Gilmore on guitar, and drummer Jeff Watts will play with the group as our special guest on Saturday and Sunday. Both bands will play some originals and standards.” In addition to the tenor and soprano sax, Ravi plans to play the sopranino saxophone, the smallest instrument in the saxophone family pitched at E-flat, giving him another sound dimension to navigate and explore. Both of Ravi’s parents played The Vanguard, so for him the venue is a sacred temple of sound, where the sonic remnants of his mother and father still resonate with him. 

Ravi has been the executor of his parents’ estates since his mother died in 2007. Striving to “maintain a healthy balance between being an executor and being a musician,” Ravi is involved in the production and release of their rare, lost and newly-discovered recordings. Two of their latest works are Kirtan: Turiya Sings (Avatar Book Institute), a 1982 release culled from devotional cassette records Alice distributed to her students who attended her Santa Monica ashram. The tapes were discovered by Ravi when he produced his mother’s final CD Translinear Light (Impulse!) released in 2004. 

Another recording Ravi puts out this month under his auspices is John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle (Impulse!): a rare performance of his father’s epic, four-movement suite—the second in existence found so far—recorded at the city’s Penthouse club in 1965, with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassists Garrison and Donald “Rafael” Garrett, along with saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward. Ravi feels that his parents’ artistry is the appropriate kind of spiritual message for today’s times. “I think it’s the right time for all of this music to be heard,” Ravi says.

Born in 1965, the second of three children, Ravi was an infant when his father died in 1967, and grew up in Woodland Hills, California. Ravi heard his father’s music growing up, and started playing the clarinet at El Camino Real High School, where he graduated in 1983; he was accepted into the California Institute of the Arts in 1986. It was there where he “got serious” about playing the saxophone, and immersed himself in his father’s extended saxophone techniques, and also studied Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker. He studied in the university’s jazz program with the esteemed bassist Charlie Haden, then moved to New York in 1991.

Ravi inherits the quiet demeanor of both his parents. When you see him on stage, he is cool, controlled, personable and engaging. His sax solos obviously bear the improvisational imprint of his father, and of Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Charles Lloyd and a host of other saxophone colossuses. Given his musical pedigree, Ravi could have easily cashed in on his name, and signed a lucrative recording contract before he was musically mature. But he chose the slow and steadier path of apprenticeship with esteemed mentors, and it has paid off. And nothing shows his trait for patience more than the fact that it has been nine years since he’s released a new CD. That being said, for him, it’s about quality, not quantity. “There’s so many CDs out there,” Ravi says, “I will release something when I have something to say.”

Ravi Coltrane performs at The Village Vanguard with Dezron Douglas, bass, and Johnathan Blake, drums, Oct. 26-28, with Lonnie Plaxico, bass, Elé Howell, drums, and David Gilmore, guitar, Oct. 29-31, and special guest drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts on Saturday and Sunday.

Photo Credit: Deborah Feingold

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