If Charles Mingus were among us today, he might have been astonished — or more likely, gratified — by the health of the Mingus tribute/repertory band scene. For all we know, the irascible, willful composer may well be hovering over Mingus Amungus, a youngish band that carries on Mingus’ spirit by using his repertory as a springboard for their own excursions into far-out regions.
Returning to the Jazz Bakery Wednesday night, the group led off with a performance of Mingus’ “Better Git Hit in Your Soul” that concisely and dramatically defined its approach. Piece was set up with a lone percussionist shaking his beaded instrument, setting up call-and-response African chanting with the rest of the band. Then the tune sounded forth in a knockabout, cacophonous din, congas tumbling over the drums and Miles Perkins’ funky acoustic bass, tenor saxman Joshi Marshall reaching wildly for the outside, and trumpeter Gavin Distassi taking conventional bop licks, shifting from a jazz waltz to a walking bass for trombonist Marty Wenner. They caught the essence of the tune exactly –using jazz tradition as a safety tether while flying off into unpredictably quirky territory.
There would be more Mingus material in the first set, such as “Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” (from the group’s current album, “Isms” ), with slow, sophisticated, bluesy work from the front line of horns, and a woolly, exotic impression of “Far Wells, Mill Valley,” complete with belly dancer and Marshall’s wailing-banshee soprano sax. From there, it was just a short distance to the Buckshot LeFonque-like hip-hop rhythms, unison horn front and rap vocals of the first set’s concluding number. (Would Mingus have connected with rap had he lived into the 1990s? I think so.)
While their set could have done without the long, inept, noisy drum solo that opened one of the group’s original numbers — though drummer Steve Rossi otherwise drove this band forcefully — Mingus Amungus displays a refreshingly loose-jointed attitude: The group doesn’t go down on its knees before the Mingus monument.