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The requisite move to New York City came next, and there Mingus read his work at gritty rock clubs (“I didn’t want to do the typical ‘jazz poetry’ scene like everyone else,” he says.) while holding down a gig as a martini mixer at the staid Old Granddad whiskey bar in Midtown. In 1993, after he had toured as a vocalist with the bands of jazz pianists Carla Bley and her daughter, Karen Mantler (whose group has also featured Jonathan Sanborn, son of saxophonist David Sanborn), Eric was introduced to The Kinks’ Ray Davies, who was then directing Weird Nightmare, a documentary about Charles Mingus. The following year Davies invited him to help work on the film in London, where the young bassist-poet soon formed a duo with trumpeter Jim Dvorak (alas, no relation to the famed Czech composer). The two recorded an album, This Isn’t Sex (eventually released in 1999 on Slam Records), but after he’d spent two years on the UK and European jazz circuit and taught vocal improvisation at London’s Community Music House, Mingus ran into visa snags and left.
But, of course, the prodigal son must always return. And these days Mingus lives in West Shokan and commutes once a week to New York to teach vocal techniques. “Everything’s come full circle,” he says. “I had to leave and come back to the area I grew up in to actually appreciate it.” He’s released four albums as a leader since moving back to the States, occasionally sings with his organist-neighbor Bruce Katz’s band, the Organiks, and sometimes performs at Levon Helm’s star-studded Midnight Ramble sessions. In addition to regularly headlining in the US and Europe, Mingus has been invited by Hal Willner to perform in the filmmaker’s recent tribute events honoring songwriter Doc Pomus, folk archivist Harry Smith, and literary luminaries Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade; and lately he’s toured with Downtown guitarist Elliot Sharp’s avant-blues unit, Terraplane.
Another of Mingus’s frequent collaborators and a Midnight Ramble cohort is Woodstock saxophonist Erik Lawrence, whose father is the late postbop sax king Arnie Lawrence. “Eric is by far one of the most intense performers I’ve ever worked with,” says Lawrence, who also leads the jazz/poetry projects Merge and Mystery Loves Company and often works with Willow-based drummer Ben Perowsky, the son of New York reedsman Frank Perowsky. “Before he goes on stage, he goes into this incredibly deep, almost meditative state. And then he just totally bares his soul when he performs.”
In May of this year, Mingus met and played with Irish-born saxophonist Catherine Sikora at a memorial event for drummer Lance Carter. The symbiosis was instant, and the two decided to form a duo, Clockwork Mercury, which takes its name from a line in “Silverfish,” a piece by poet Bernard O’Donoghue. “Right away, we really clicked,” says Mingus. “Playing with Catherine has really reinvigorated what I do. In fact, it doesn’t feel like I’ve ever not played with her.”
“Playing with Eric is [an experience of] pure sound,” says Sikora—another avid boxer and poetry lover—who lives in New York and also plays in the groups Burnt Sugar and RX. “It’s the purest, most focused concentration on sound and melody. I always feel like I’m all ears when we play together, which is the pinnacle of playing, really.” The unsigned twosome has a haunting, addictively atmospheric debut in the can and is touring Italy this month with an expanded lineup in support of Mingus’s Healin’ Howl.
With any artist that works in the undefined, neither-here-nor-there world where music collides with poetry, one can’t help but wonder: If forced to decide, which would he choose, the former or the latter? “Sometimes I wish I could just dive right into the poetry full time, but it’s really hard for me to separate the two,” says Mingus. “I’ve had some poems published in Chronogram and other magazines, though I haven’t done any books yet.
“But I’ll record a piece and to me that will feel like, ‘Okay, it’s been published.’ Of course, it’s not really the same thing as putting it out there for people to read, but I just can’t imagine other people reading my stuff. I don’t write it with that in mind. When I write something it always feels like I’m singing it.”