When Charles Mingus died last year, the eulogies made him sound like a national legend. But when the jazz composer was alive, he usually played his difficult, groundbreaking jazz for small crowds. Similarly, tomorrow's jazz legends are playing challenging music for small crowds today. Six of them are in the Don Pullen-Beaver Harris 360 Degree Music Experience at d.c. space tonight.
Last night the sextet's show highlighted tenor saxophonist Ricky Ford and pianist Pullen, both of whom played in Mingus' last band. Pullen threw jagged fragments and rolling swells of notes everywhere; the 26-year-old Ford was a Mount St. Helens of reed sound. Also spectacular were the foghorn groans and birdlike squeals of baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, part of the World Saxophone Quartet. Francis Haynes made the unusual addition of Caribbean steel drums work.
As in Mingus' bands, the technical power was funneled into powerfully emotional music. The sextet plays both from notation and through improvisation. They began with a wild avant garde piece showcasing Ford's blowing and then moved easily into Bluiett's romantic ballad, "Fool, Deep and Mellow." They closed with a blues stomp that drew on tradition and then turned it inside out. It's ironic that so many jazz fans mourn past masters while they ignore contemporary talents like these.