Leaning in with Boris Kozlov

Boris Kozlov has met, head-on, the gargantuan task of keeping a legacy alive while comfortably and ably expressing his own individuality. As the co-leader of the Mingus Big Band, originally formed by Charles Mingus’s widow Sue Graham Mingus after the bassist’s demise in 1979, his music and musical direction stand beautifully tall. The winner of three Grammys and an instructor at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (NY), Kozlov’s style is nimble, agile, tuneful and hearty. Ten minutes of him alone (“A Day at the Basses” visiting Lemur Music), smiling and swaying with his bass, shows his abundant enjoyment of making music. On playing “Fables of Faubus” with the Mingus Band at the North Sea Jazz Festival, his smooth delivery is a brilliant counterpoint to Alex Terrier’s sizzling sax out front.

Why did you choose to play bass and what did you early musical training consist of?

I went to evening music school, finishing seven years of piano, but was always attracted to the low end. Played tuba in brass band and bass guitar in a public school rock band (in those days 1981-83, we didn’t call ourselves that).

What was the best advice you received about playing jazz?

I was about to play a sub gig with Dr. Eddie Henderson and after I told him I was afraid of making a ‘mistake’ he comforted me by saying that “If there are any mistakes, we will make them together.”

When did you know you had found your particular style with bass?

I still don’t know that. But I hope others know.

How and why did you get involved with the Mingus Big Band?

Tommy Campbell brought me in in 1998 as a sub and two weeks later Mrs. Mingus asked me to go on tour and produce a play-along.

What aspects of Mingus’s music influenced you as a bassist?

His connection to multiple disciplines of bebop, church, classical, blues and folk, and knowledge of the bass and of how to express himself on it with the amalgam of these genres. 

What did the learning curve consist of when you started as co-director of the band?

Mostly tying loose ends of the personal connections within the band and making sure

that whatever I do agrees with Sue and the musicians, and also observing already-made traditions in the Big Band.

What is the most rewarding?

The music itself and the energy of it. Then, also, we know that audiences love it, too.

How do you see Mingus’s body of work growing and developing after his passing in 1979?

It took some time and some work of Sue’s to spread it, but more and more one can see Mingus’ tunes appearing in the books of the young and powerful. Definitely, creating such institutions as the BBand and Dynasty, the word of Mingus’ power has spread around, too.

What are the new challenges when you arrange for the band today, musically speaking?

They are always the same: check multiple versions, see what the core idea was, find voicings that are modern, but still in harmony with Mingus’s ideas, create a chart that’s playable on at least the second or third reading.

What was your experience playing at Fez like?

That was my first weekly gig of this level, and I remember meeting about 20 new musicians every Thursday on and off the bandstand. And not being able to sleep after.

What has the band done to stay in the spotlight during the lockdown?

A little something – doing solo on Mondays in the spring and summer online, and finishing mixes and edits of our huge recording project that we did in January, which is 22 new arrangements. Part of it will become a Centennial album. Now before the high school annual competitions we’re working on three virtual tracks featuring the BBand and material from our new record.

What do you love absolutely most about jazz?

Ability to be myself and co-create at the same time.

Are there any gigs upcoming for this year?

We have a high school competition in February and some online clinics associated with it. It’s up to extraneous circumstances, of course, but we have a Europe tour cooking for the fall of 2021.

Other comments?

Thank you for your interest in the band and the music. Definitely looking forward to meeting you on a live gig at some point.

For more information, visit https://www.charlesmingus.com/mingus-big-band.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

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