Mingus Big Band, 4.24.08

I miss band.

I miss playing things like “John Williams in Concert.” I miss going to Disneyland and getting up early two days a week and being the last chair in the flute section and playing “Heart and Soul” on the piano to enrage by band director.

What is it about jazz bands that make everyone nostalgic? Is it because we consider jazz to be the music of our parents? I hope not. Jazz has a rather dazzling effect on listeners who are willing to appreciate it. I found myself recalling middle-school memories not only because I hadn’t been a room with so many saxophones since 2002, but also because I had forgotten what a good mood jazz puts me into.

But enough about me.

The stage at Yoshi’s in Oakland might have been a few sizes too small for the 14-piece Mingus Big Band, but they seemed to make the most of the space they had. And even though the shape of the room swallowed some of those esteemed overtones that the dreadlocked saxophonist/flautist/leader so rightfully glorified, it was clear that this band’s name contains “big” for a reason. They exemplify a complicated musical paradox: the band is inherently unified and independent at its core, depending on and yet disregarding each instrument in ever improvised note. Each artist got his five minutes of fame (and reasonably so, considering that the set was only about 90 minutes) and milked his musical talent dry enough to incite nods from his bandmembers. And like any musician, the players lost themselves in their own melodies, only to be brought back by the audience’s approval.

Using hand signals as cryptic as those of a catcher’s at home plate, the aforementioned “leader” changed the tempo, volume, and rhythm with a vague wrist flick. And the more he challenged his band, the better they got. The set drew from all corners of their repertoire, including “Sue’s Changes,” “So Long Eric,” and “Meditations.” The latter jam demonstrated that a song need not contain lyrics to make a political statement. And by the end of their set, the tiny stage was bursting with comfort and comraderie.

I can’t wait to see them in New York.

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