Mingus Big Band and George Lewis’ Soundlines

Mingus Big Band getting ready to play, October 14, 2019

Monday nights at The Jazz Standard on East 27th Street in New York City are for the Grammy Award-winning Mingus Big Band! In 2010 they won the award for Best Large Ensemble Album. It’s time for their next Grammy, and the set I saw on Monday, October 14, could have been a contender, had it only been recorded.

Early on, leader Alex Foster introduced young bassist Marcos Varela, new to the band. He was ready and showed no fear. Theo Hill on piano (new to me) was percussive and exciting. And veteran Earl McIntyre on bass trombone rocked the room. The trombones are the solar plexus chakra of the MBB. This may be an ill-advised metaphor. The heart of the set was “Fables of Faubus” (Orval Faubus was Arkansas Governor in 1957 and obstructed the integration of Little Rock Central High School) leading to “Haitian Fight Song.” Several young people from the audience stepped up and talked about the current life-and-death crisis in Haiti. Afterwards they were raising money at the door.

On Friday at NYU, composer George Lewis’ Soundlines concert opened with percussionist Steven Schick narrating and accompanying his story of his 700+ mile walk from San Diego to San Francisco. Twenty miles a day, six days a week, seven weeks, more than a million steps. While he walked he tried not to overthink, but sometimes he couldn’t stop himself. “My calves are screaming!” was one outburst. A small ensemble played on a platform above him, and electronic sounds like gulls and traffic washed in from the sides. Big orange signal lights pulsed on and off. 

Soundlines is a work in two parts. More small string/winds/voice ensembles materialized for the second composition, P. Multitudinis. The Latin text comes from philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-77). “The right of the commonwealth is determined by the power of the people . . . . for the good of all men.” In the program notes, Lewis writes that “the performance is achieved through negotiation and consensus, and its success will be less a question of individual freedom than of the assumption of personal responsibility for the sonic environment.” 

A conductor zigzagged from group to group, cueing the ensembles to follow invisible (to the audience) written instructions like “Create a short solo,” “Play as fast as possible,” “Wait for another ensemble to stop, then imitate their action.” The order was random so every performance will be different. Experiencing it is like watching eggs hatch in nests around and above the stage. When the house lights came up, we knew it was over. 

These two musical evenings bracketed my “work week” in mid-October, here in New York.

After Soundlines, composer George Lewis (left) of Columbia University and
the International Contemporary Ensemble strides onto the stage, October 18, at NYU Skirball

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