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Nick McCusker: “freedom is the big thing Mingus’ music conveys to my life”

mingusthingusThe baritone sax is an instrument that seems to have been created to play the music of Charles Mingus. Nick McCusker seems to know this. A brilliant baritone saxophonist, he is also the leader of a band devoted to the mercurial jazzman’s work, which comprises of some fresh, talented, adventurous young guns. Aptly named Mingus Thingus, the band is set to record a live album of their take on Mingus’ songbook – i.e. one of the most interesting, challenging, uplifting and inspiring compositions in the jazz canon. And it always proves a great conversation starter.

AustralianJazz.net: How was Mingus Thingus born?
Nick McCusker:
The band came together at the end of my first year at Monash University. I had yet to actually do any gigs that year, and I guess I was very aware at how rare it is for a baritone player to get a gig at all outside of Big Band repertoire; so I got together a bunch of my really close mates I had made in my first year at Uni, got some charts and booked some gigs! I should shout out to Lebowski’s and the Melbourne Improvisors Collective; without them we would never have gotten our first gig! As far as the name goes, Mingus Thingus actually started off being called Eat That Chicken. I really loved that song and couldn’t think of a better title, until my friend Brae gave us a different name as a joke and that ended up sticking!

AJN: Why Mingus?
NMcC: Mingus was always a fascination of mine because of the breadth of his compositions and particularly his instrumentation. There were heaps of other musicians I was so into at the time as well; Gerry Mulligan and his work with Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, and the works of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond. All these other amazing musicians were people I was also becoming obsessed with in my first year of university, but the raw emotion that came through in Mingus’ music and arrangements always grabbed my attention. There were two in particular: Moanin’ and Fables of Faubus. The instrumentation, where he frequently featured the baritone sax, had a lot to do with my decision as well being a baritone player myself!

AJN: What was your first experience with Mingus’ music?

NMcC: My first experience with Mingus’s music was Moanin’, off the Blues and Roots album. Hearing Pepper Adams with the famous riff at the start totally changed my perception of the baritone saxophone and its role in a band. We then played it in my final year of high school after begging my teacher to play it for about six months straight I reckon! After that, I just kept looking into Mingus’ music and found that every time I listened to a new album, his music always had this way of blowing my mind like I was listening to Mingus for the first time ever. I was just totally hooked by the end of high school and still am now!

AJN: What is your favourite Mingus album?
NMcC: Such a difficult question! I’d have to say The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. That album is just a constant fascination to me; every time I listen to it I feel like I hear something new I’ve missed the last time! And compositionally, it’s just amazing. The instrument combinations, drifting in and out of complex arranged areas and burning, passionate improvisations… And then there’s just the utter chaos of some sections, it’s just so exciting every time you listen and suddenly drops down to nothing, with these beautiful, lush horn sections and piano.

AJN: How do you approach Mingus’ material?
NMcC: There are two ways it usually happens. I usually start by bringing in a lead sheet format chart to the guys, and we’ll play it through after listening to the original. After jamming on it for a while, we talk ideas, workshop it, try different feels, tempo changes, improvised backings, and so on. Those are my favourite kind of arrangements, where it may not seem there’s a huge amount of difference from the original, but the interpretation is exactly how we as a band are feeling it together, which makes the whole process feel more organic. Otherwise, the rest of the time I’ll bring in arrangements where I’ve written backing lines, or counter melodies, or right now I’m actually working on a project for the future which is a whole bunch of tunes that are either contrafacts of Mingus’ music, or use small snippets of his tunes as inspiration and become something totally different from there on.

AJN: If you could invite anyone as a guest member (no limitations whatsoever), who would that be?
NMcC: This is the hardest question… Mingus himself would be the obvious choice, but to avoid a cliche answer I’d have to say Eric Dolphy. He had such sad death, way too soon, and I would love to hear him play over some more Mingus tunes, or anything else for that matter!

AJN: Why did you decide to record an album?
NMcC: The album is sort of a snapshot in time of where we’re at. The band started when we were all in uni together, and now almost all of us are out, so I thought it’d be great to make something that shows where we’re at after our first four years playing together. Then, when we record again, in who knows how many years, we’ll have something to look back on too!

AJN: What do you think is the significance of Mingus’ work in today’s context?
NMcC: I think the biggest thing is the freedom in Mingus’ music. These days its so easy to fall into the trap (at least it is for me!) of writing tunes that just fall back to old, established forms and structures for compositions. Mingus did that for sure, but was never constrained by it either! Some of his tunes, like Fables of Faubus for example have odd numbers of bars through the sections. When you listen to it though, everything that needs to be there is there. Not a single bar feels out of place, and I think if you evened it out, it just wouldn’t feel right either. As for what it says to us about our lives, I can’t speak for others but for me it’s freedom. Freedom in what you say, believe, want to write and play musically, being totally in touch with all the emotions inside you, both positive and negative, and never being ashamed of any of it. Hell, even I shouldn’t say that because feeling ashamed is a part of the whole thing too! So yeah, to avoid wandering off down a never ending tangent, I’d just say freedom is the big thing his music conveys to my life.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?
NMcC: Haha, that’s got to 100% be “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”… Such a weird and amazing song, all over the shop and reflects how my life’s kind of feeling at the moment!

* Mingus Thingus are playing (and recording their live album) at the Paris Cat on Thursday 26 May.

UPDATE (almost a year on): on Friday 31 March 2017 it is time for the launch of the album. 

About Nikos Fotakis

I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. Also a father, a husband, a writer, an editor, a coffee addict, a type 1 diabetic and an expat. Born and raised in Athens. Based in Melbourne. Jazz is my country.