There are tribute bands and there are Mingus tribute bands. Because it’s one thing to play the music of your heroes and a completely different thing to take on the relentless task of measuring yourself against the towering figure of Charles Mingus, one of the (two or three) greatest composers in jazz, whose larger-than-life personality seems to have been exactly that: larger than life, remaining a tangible presence decades after his death. Baritone saxophonist Steve Fitzmaurice did not shy away from the challenge. His band, Mingus Amongst Us has been a great platform for a large roster of amazing musicians around Australia (there are in fact different rosters in many cities) to play Mingus’ angry and wonderful music. Now the Mingus Amongst Us Melbourne branch is playing at the Paris Cat, which is a great opportunity for the bandleader to share its backstory.
How did Mingus Amongst Us come to be?
The band was born in Melbourne in 2011, although the idea for the band had been in my head for a long time before that. I had been arranging the material slowly with no real urgency for some months, but while living in Melbourne (I was travelling with the theatre show ‘Jersey Boys’ at the time), I mentioned the idea to Tim Wilson, who was also playing sax in the show, and before I knew it, he had lined up a gig for the band at Bennetts Lane Jazz Club… I still didn’t have enough material together for a gig yet, so needless to say, I upped the urgency with getting the songs finished!
That first gig at Bennetts was sold out and we have been playing there as regularly as possible ever since. ‘Jersey Boys’ went to Perth after that, so I put a band together there, also with local players and we played once a month to enthusiastic crowds at The Ellington, a great jazz club in Perth.
The band has different line-ups with local musicians, for Melbourne and Sydney. How does this work?
Yes, it’s definitely more economically viable to pick up players in each city, rather than flying and accommodating nine musicians around the country! I put the bands together most regularly in Sydney and Melbourne, however there are really five different line-ups for the band – as well as Sydney and Melbourne, I’ve done the band a lot in Perth, once in Adelaide, and am really looking forward to doing it for the second time in Brisbane this December. I have often thought how difficult it would be to put together my dream band out of everyone should I happen to get a gig somewhere overseas for the band!
I just love Mingus’ compositions (as well as his bass playing, of course). To me, the appeal is that his songs take in influences from all styles of jazz; it can be as out there and avant guard as you like, yet it is always deeply rooted in blues and tradition. I am also a big Duke Ellington fan, and I love how Mingus writes tunes specifically with certain players in mind, similar to the way Duke did.
How do you approach Mingus’ material?
Mingus had so many different lineups in his ensembles over the years, the first thing to decide upon was going to be size and instrumentation of the band. I knew I wanted a large ensemble but I didn’t want it to be a standard big band (although the Mingus Big Band from New York is a huge influence on the arrangements). I wanted the players to feel free to improvise and not be just reading the charts. I decided on a nine-piece band, this way there were enough instruments to cover all the different melodies in Mingus’ more involved compositions, but the band would still have the free, improvisational aspect of a small ensemble.
Why did you decide to record an album?
The Sydney version of the band had been playing a weekly Monday night residency in Kings Cross for about nine months at the time and there were so many fantastic nights that could have been recorded. In the end, the opportunity came about when a friend told Peter Nelson from Fine Music (102.5) radio about us he loved the band and asked if he could record us live at a gig we were doing at Foundry 616. From memory, we were only given about a weeks notice that we were going to record, but luckily we were match-ready and sounding great because we had been playing together every week for so long.
How did you decide on the track list?
The track listing was tough! The toughest decision every gig is deciding which tunes have to be left out! The only song from the night that I regret not being able to put on the album was “The Shoes Of The Fishermans Wife”. This is one of my favourite Mingus tunes, I had only finished the arrangement not long before the gig, it’s very involved and I didn’t feel like we did it justice enough to keep on the album. I think I was probably being very picky, since I love the tune so much.
If you could invite anyone as a guest member (no limitations whatsoever), who would that be?
The obvious answer would have to be Mingus surely! Eric Dolphy would be a close second
Which Australian artist’s work would you include in the repertoire?
I love Peter Dasent and James Greening‘s writing – songs by either of them would work well in amongst a Mingus set, I reckon. They both have a fantastic, sophisticated, yet quirky element to their writing.
What was your first first experience with Mingus’ music?
My first experience was hanging at a mate’s place and listening to a compilation album of the ‘Beat Generation’. It was fantastic! It combined all these different elements of jazz, narration, and circus music. I still remember how I felt while listening to it but I don’t know what it was called and have never been able to find it since!
What is your favourite Mingus album?
It’s hard to pick. I think my favourite album would have to be ‘Let My Children Hear Music’. Close runner ups would be ‘Tijuana Moods’, ‘Changes’, and ‘Money Jungle’. I love ‘Let My Children Hear Music’ because of the writing; he has a large ensemble on this album and every instrument is so vital in covering the amount of different layers of melodies and counter melodies.
What do you think is the significance of Mingus’ work in today’s context?
Mingus’ music is very deep on so many levels. It delves into human feelings, political oppression, issues of inequality in society, intimate relationships… all of which is still significant today. I find his compositions, playing and life in general to be a massive outpouring of emotions that were possibly his only way of dealing with the world he found himself living in. A world that in a lot of regards has changed very little today.
If Mingus was alive today, what do you think he’d be interested in?
If Mingus were alive today, I dare say he would be just as outspoken and proactive about world politics as he was in the 50s, 60s and 70s. I think he would be shocked and saddened to see the amount of racial persecution that still goes on today. Very little seems to have improved in the conditions on Haiti since he wrote ‘Haitian Fight Song’ back in 1957, and closer to home here in Australia, I’m sure Mingus would be very outspoken about the current treatment of refugees on Manus Island.
Have you been in touch with the Mingus Estate?
I was lucky enough to meet Sue Mingus in New York one night and sit at a table with her while listening to the Mingus Big Band. She was lovely! I’ve heard stories that she can get just as fiery as Charles used to, but I didn’t see any of it that night!
Mingus was reported as being short-fused, angry, difficult to work with. How would you describe yourself as a leader?
Ha, I don’t think I would come close to being as short-fused or angry as Mingus could get I’m yet to punch anyone the bandstand anyway! ‘Mingus Amongst Us’ is the only time so far that I have been a band leader and honestly I’ve found it really easy I’m always lucky enough to have fantastic players who want to be in the band and the rest takes care of itself.
Which song best describes your current state of mind?
‘The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife are some Jive Ass Slippers’
…nah not really, but I do think it’s possibly the best song title I’ve ever heard!
Wednesday 20 December – Press Club (Brisbane)