Saxophonist and Mingus Underground leader Andy Pickett discusses the band and the music of Charles Mingus ahead of their appearance at this year’s Brighton Fringe Festival.
Tell us about how the group came together.
“I've long been a fan of Mingus, and had really wanted to play this great music, and asking around found out that many other musicians felt the same way. I remember a few conversations with the late Simon D'Souza when we were playing together in Ska Toons about Mingus and his encouragement was a big part in my actually getting my act together and forming the Mingus Underground Octet. I'd already put my feet in the Mingus water by doing a couple of big band arrangements of Fables of Faubus and Haitian Fight Song for the Ska Kestra, the occasional big-band version of Ska Toons (if you listen very carefully to the Mingus Underground versions of these you may be able to spot some vestiges of Ska, where I've adapted these!). It wasn't until I broke my shoulder in cycling accident and wasn't able to play for a couple of months though, that I got around to sitting down and transcibing and arranging most of the music. i booked a first date for the band in February 2014 which forced me to finish the arrangements and to get a band together and was able to put together a really talented group of musicians who were excited to play Mingus and who could their own individual voices to the music. The latter was really important to me as it is very much in the spirit of Mingus, who relied and placed demands on his musicians and expected them to bring something distinctive to the music.”
The band have been doing a few gigs around Sussex, including the South Coast Jazz Festival. What was that experience like?
“It was a really great experience to play to a packed house at the SCJF, sharing the bill with the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra, and we had a great response and feedback from the audience. Claire, Julian and the team at the festival were really supportive it was really gratifying to put a band on that made up of musicians from Sussex that showed the wealth of talent we have in the area, in keeping with the aims of the festival.”
You've played in a few big bands and done arranging before. What have you learnt from arranging the music of Mingus?
“That’s an interesting question because I don't really consider myself an arranger as far as the Mingus Underground Octet goes, in that I've tried to stay as close as possible to Mingus's versions, transcribing the music from recordings and adapting it for our line-up where necessary. That said I've learnt a lot from the exercise, particularly about how to write and structure the music without being too prescriptive to allow the musicians the space and the latitude to express themselves and to be creative in their improvising. An interesting example of this for me has been Far Wells, Mill Valley from the Mingus Dynasty (album) that I've been transcribing recently. This is a very ambitious piece for Mingus in this period, who, rather than providing the musicians with standard chord charts, instructed them to use open fifths and tone rows as the basis for their improvisations (but also says in the sleeve notes to the album that the trumpet and sax solos didn't follow his instructions!). The challenge for me is to work out, from the recording, how Mingus expressed his intentions to the musicians for the piece, which could well have been verbally (or non-verbally!) and to write them out in a way that is actually playable.”
“Our piano player, David Beebee, who is a very fine composer and arranger, has been braver than me and has done a couple of quite radical reinterpretations of Mingus tunes, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and Reincarnation in Times Square (in 7/4!) that we are very much looking forward to playing.”
Tell us about your upcoming gig at Brighton's Fringe Festival.
“I've been very disappointed in the lack of jazz in the Brighton Festival in recent years, in contrast to when I first came to Brighton, when there was a jazz festival as part of the main festival, so was very keen to put the Mingus Underground Octet on in the Fringe Festival. As always we have an amazing group of musicians on the gig:
Terry Pack on bass and Mingus-style hollering; Milo Fell on drums; David Beebee on piano; Martijn van Galen on trumpet and flugelhorn; Tim Wade on trombone; Rob Leake on baritone sax, bass clarinet and flute; Sam Miles on tenor sax and me on alto sax.
Come down to the Brunswick on the 10th of May to hear us try and recreate the spirit of Mingus, and support live jazz in Brighton.”
What other projects are you involved with?
“I play in various big bands including the Studio 9 Orchestra, South Coast Jazz Orchestra, Sussex Jazz Orchestra and Paul Busby's big band. I'm in Smithville (smithville.co.uk) who play organ-driven hard bop and soul jazz and I've just started playing in a new band JOKO that mix township jazz with african highlife and afrobeat. I'm working on getting a new project together that will play classic Pepper Adams/Donald Byrd quintet music, with me on baritone, that I hope will see the light of day later this year. (Jack Kendon – let's make this happen!). Oh, and I play in Lewes jazz-ska institution Ska Toons.”