Charles Mingus is commonly regarded as one of jazz's preeminent composers, his name typically mentioned alongside Duke Ellington's—which makes it a bit puzzling as to why covers of his compositions aren't in greater supply. Oh sure, any number of versions of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” can be found, but beyond that Lester Young tribute Mingus covers grow scarce. One possible reason might be simply that when his own recorded versions appear so definitive, the idea of covering the material proves so daunting it scares off even the most intrepid of musicians. Paul Rogers isn't one of them, however, as demonstrated by the very existence of Whahay, a fearless trio established by the seven-string double bassist to pay homage to the great man. Accompanied by tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Robin Fincker and virtuosic drummer Fabien Duscombs, Whahay tackles nine Mingus pieces on its terrific, self-titled debut with a collective brio that makes the material feel new all over again.
Perhaps one reason why Rogers felt liberated from the usual apprehensions of attempting Mingus covers is the conceptual approach the trio brings to the project. Rather than execute replications of the original arrangements, Rogers and company treat the pieces as springboards for spirited, improv-driven riffs on the originals; it's no accident, in other words, that the credit on the inner sleeve reads “All music improvised from and towards compositions by Charles Mingus” as opposed to simply “All compositions by Charles Mingus.” The set-list ranges between well-known fare, such as “Better Git It In Your Soul,” “Reincarnation of a Love Bird,” and, naturally, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” to the less familiar “Canon” and “Ecclusiastics.”
“Better Git It In Your Soul” makes for a great scene-setter to the fifty-two-minute release, especially when the clarinet and bowed bass double up for the tune's labyrinthine, blues-soaked melodies, before things take a looser turn, Fincker purring on tenor and Duscombs showing no small amount of invention in his rapid-fire flurries. The opener's boppish vibe subsides for “Ecclusiastics,” a meditative improv that affords Rogers ample room to showcase the sonorous range of his instrument, which here suggests a cello above all else, especially when heard alongside Fincker's classically tinged clarinet playing. If Duscombs's contributions to “Ecclusiastics” verge on subliminal, they're anything but elsewhere. The drummer powers the uptempo episodes in “Jump Monk” with a charging swing, then shows how thoroughly inventive he can be during his intro to “Canon.” Of course all of the group's members show themselves to be nimble players in both their trio interactions and solo spots.
Elsewhere, Whahay gives “Pithecanthropus Erectus” a suitably muscular, even at times chaotic reading, with all three pursuing distinct paths whilst mindful of the cumulative shape of the material. The group eschews an uptempo bop treatment of “Reincarnation of A Lovebird” for something closer to free improv, with the sax and bowed bass coiling themselves around its sinuous melodies before the deconstruction sets in. While admittedly a warhorse of sorts, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is nevertheless invigorated by a dreamy, clarinet-based rendering, as well as by a subtly evocative intro by Rogers.
The three generally invest the material with so much collective energy the results are at times exhilarating, and one comes away from the recording less focused on the fact that it's an album of Mingus covers than taken by the trio's passionate take on his music. Whahay's clearly an outfit that makes segueing between traditional bop passages and free improv seem like the most natural thing in the world.