Fight Song: A Tribute to Charles Mingus by No BS! Brass
No BS! Brass tears through Fight Song: A Tribute to Charles Mingus—their fifth recording since their inception in 2008. In July 2012 I saw No BS! Brass perform twice in RVA—during the Mingus Awareness Project concert at The Camel, and then at a comedy theater venue—two very different venues and types of crowds. No BS! Brass is an ensemble that clearly loves playing together; they smoke out unique sounds whose alchemy boldly combines New Orleans brass band music with rock, hip hop, free jazz and other musical influences. This foot stomp-inducing unit transmits energy, rhythm and timbre in front of live audiences and stretches musical forms in studio recordings. Jump at the chance to check out Richmond, VA-based No BS! live—their performances elevate crowds in jazz and rock venues alike. They had the people listening intently and infectiously moving their booties.
Back to the studio: Fight Song kicks off with “Jelly Roll,” the fantastic composition that Mingus penned in homage to the early jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. Lance Koehler and Stefan Demetriadis bust into an organically suffused 7/8 funk groove, and the horns enter. “Jelly Roll” in 7/8? Yeah, and it really works; Koehler’s steady open-closed hi-hat gives the beat a sonic illusion, suggesting 7/4. Taylor Barnett’s trumpet solo has a languid and relaxed start, and then phrases crack the stratosphere. Bryan Hooten, who arranged “Jelly Roll,” solos. Barnett and Hooten trade 2’s, then a horn break. Back to the head. MORE?
Demetriadis’ contra solo lays down the foundation for the iconic gospel jazz “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” (originally recorded on Mingus Ah Um, 1959), then joined by Koehler’s funky groove that drives till the melody enters.
“Girl of My Dreams,” arranged by Marcus Tenney, builds on a mid-tempo groove—a cool departure from original recording (Mingus Ah Um, 1959)—which begins with an uptempo swing groove, and then shifts to half tempo ballad, 12/8 section, and accelerated and decelerated tempos. Tenney’s lyrical solo starts it out. Woodblock clave, upbeat claps, and other handpercussion augment the bustling rhythm. No BS! stacks so many great rhythmic and melodic ideas into this arrangement that it’s hard to believe this song clocks in to under four minutes.
“Invisible Lady,” arranged by David Hood, is quite a transformation from the original recording on Tonight at Noon (1957). As with the rest of Fight Song, you can tell how strongly No BS! puts its unique groove stamp on it, while exploring the essence of Mingus’ conception. It opens with Hooten’s solo trombone line, then the band busts into a salsa-infused groove. Cool how Hood orchestrates layers—with unison lines, melodies and splashes of horns above. Pace digs into his solo with plunger mute, and Hooten steps in, and a battle of the bones ensues. A firestorm of brass hits the disco bridge, then a return to the top.
“Haitian Fight Song” spitstarts with a punchy frontloaded variation of the horn figure you hear halfway through the original recording of the song on The Clown (1957), like a horn gauntlet in a Morricone theme. Pace’s arrangement proves to be a unique approach to what Mingus wrote in homage to the first colony of predominantly African slaves to kick off its European oppressors—back in 1804! Here No BS! demonstrates one of Louis Armstrong’s definition of jazz—that it’s an arranged jam—and this piece demonstrates that with fire that splinters and converges.
The saxophone duet with Marcus Tenney on tenor and David Hood on baritone is a left turn approach to “Moanin’.” Hood’s arrangement called for a stripped down instrumentation which provides space: bari in the left channel, tenor in the right. Solo sections with single lines—first Tenney, then Hood—and the two virtuosos spar and drop on a dime back to the melody, pulling out with that descending unison, sixteenth note run.
No BS! Brass’s approach to “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”—one of the most covered standards in the jazz songbook, Mingus’ bluesy homage to tenor giant Lester Young—is Bryan Hooten’s arrangement: the melody is pared down to a once-through impressionistic rendition that begins with plunger muted trombones by Pace and Hulley, and Hooten and Dillard Watt (bass trombone) trading melodic lines.
“Nostalgia in Times Square” focuses on voice and trombone front and center, with Koehler’s soundscape portrayed with RVA street field recordings down in the mix. Chris Bopst contributes an original poem to “Nostalgia” with a gravelly voice—stitching together his own language with phrases by Mingus, Duke Ellington, Carl Jung, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Bill Hicks—evoking themes such as universalism, capitalism and racism. Governor Orval Faubus’ nefarious Jim Crow machinations shapeshift; times may have changed, but 55+ years later similarly destructive forces still threaten to wear updated faces. Hooten, who arranged this rendition of “Nostalgia,” weaves vocalized multiphonics into the bone melody and improvisation…and finally the album dissolves into street din fadeout.
Jazz is a democratic art form, which in its best manifestations demonstrates how an ensemble shines, while allowing for the unit’s individual contributions to bring forth their best. I Pluribus Unum with melody, melody, rhythm and improvisation. No BS! Brass exemplifies how this seeming paradox happens in motion.
Those who take on the work of a genius such as Charles Mingus must know the challenging and exciting firmament they are entering. Joni Mitchell took that on with her iconic Mingus album, Jeff Beck with his take on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” Hal Willner and the musicians on Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, and the dozens of other great artists who have played and recorded unique approaches to Mingus’ music over the past half century. No BS! Brass proves it has the individual and collective verve and intelligence to inhabit Mingus’ compositions, while forging innovative twists that open the listeners to surprising perspectives on the oeuvre of an American genius.