This was a gig that was could have been designed for me. My friendly local jazz night play music by one of my heroes – or maybe that should be anti-heroes, since he was quite irascible, getting into fights on stage (which lead to him being fired by Ellington) and breaking Jimmy Knepper’s teeth and embouchure. The one time I saw him play, at a festival in 1977 and several years before I got into his music, he spent half the set haranguing the audience for being white.
But when I did get into it – well, his music is something else. Working with limited resources, he managed to make his small bands sound like big bands, with tight but fluid orchestrations that really swing. He also wrote my all time favourite tune, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, from one of my favourite jazz albums, Mingus Ah Um.
So it’s fair to say that I was looking forward to this gig. And I loved it.
The Playtime quartet started as a trio, because, ironically, bassist Mario Caribe was delayed. Still they had played gigs of both Bill Evans’ and Monk’s music without a piano, so playing Mingus without a bass should be a doddle. With guest trombonist Phil O’Malley covering the lower end of the scale and Martin Kershaw on alto the upper, driven along by drummer Tom Bancroft playing a stripped back rhythm to the beat flowing, they opened with Nostalgia in Times Square. As a trio they were remarkably effective and resourceful, Kershaw getting really low notes to mimic the bass during O’Malley’s solo.
Then Mario showed up and they really got going. Next up was Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and then they spent the next two hours or so running through some of Mingus’s most famous repertoire. My Jelly Roll Soul, Fables of Faubius, Tijuana Gift Shop, Pithecanthropus Erectus, Boogie Stomp Shuffle… It was all a joy. My incredibly picky quibble was that though they played two long sets and an encore – something I’ve not seen Playtime do before – I wanted more! Mingus has such a rich seam of tunes, they were bound to miss some favorites. (The opener from Ah Um, Better Git Hit In Your Soul, was one I’d have loved to hear! And Orange Was The Colour Of Her Dress, Then Silk Blues. And…)
Bancroft was great, somewhat more understated than he can be, really capturing the essence of Mingus’s longtime collaborator Dannie Richmond. Once Caribe had settled in, he did a fine job, not copying Mingus but praising him. Kershaw and O’Malley were excellent, too, The trombone bringing some extra tonal qualities to the quartet.
The encore was a quartet version of Nostalgia on Times Square, and with the bass it could have been a different tune: it was more swinging, and of course closer to the original, with Bancroft given greater scope to explore the tune. But it felt as if the necessity forced on the trio by the absence of the bass had made Kershaw and O’Malley a bit more creative too. It had certainly made them work harder!
But that is a minor quibble. This gig was everything I had hoped, full of exciting music. And I walked home singing my own, somewhat less tuneful version of “Nostalgia”…