With a heavyweight boxer's imposing stature, a field holler of a voice, and fingers that forge fat electric upright grooves, Eric Mingus is a sight and sound to behold. His music is a deep, direct blend of jazz, blues, rock, soul, and poetry. Oh yes, and he’s also the son of the late Charles Mingus. Born to Mingus and his third wife, Judith, on July 8, 1964, Eric started on cello in public school and soon moved to electric and upright bass, which he played on and off for the next 20 years (including a semester at Berklee). His primary focus, however, was poetry and singing, leading to tours with Carla Bley and Karen Mantler. In 1994, he relocated to London to work with the Kinks’ Ray Davies on his documentary, Weird Nightmare, about Hal Wilner’s Meditations On Mingus tribute record. While there, Eric at last made his solo debut playing bass, singing, and reciting in his duo with trumpter Jim Dvorak. Moving back to upstate New York, Mingus released his first CD in 2000, following it up with two more discs—the most recent of which, Healing Howl, arrived in 2007. Since then, Eric has remained busy as a sideman with Elliott Sharp’s Terraplane, Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, singer Tracy Bonham, saxophonist Catherine Sikora, and a new trio with guitarist Knox Chandler and drummer Michael Evans. He’s also at work on his next CD, a solo effort, tentatively (and fittingly) titled, Raw Man.
What’s the role of the bass in your music?
Almost all of my songs are written from the bass line, which inspires the melody and the groove. At the end of my practice routine I always play completely free, without thinking. I let my fingers go where they want, and often a bass line or melody will emerge. Also, as part of my shows I’ll create a song on the spot; a number of songs on my CDs started as improvisations on tours. I really enjoy the relationship between the bass and the voice, and I tend to favor small groups, like trios or duos. Harmonically, having to deal with only two or three notes is more open and freeing. I guess I’m very minimalist. I sort of feel like a lot of artists get complicated before they understand what simple is.
What’s the connection between music and poetry for you?
My dad loved poetry, and the way people speak has always been interesting to me. Growing up in East Harlem, a lot of the kids spoke Spanish, which has a lyrical flow to it. Sometimes when you free words from their meaning they’re very musical. It’s like when you kind of disengage while listening to a speaker, and you hear a melodic or rhythmic sense to it. My key influences in poetry were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Micheline, and Amiri Baraka, and their poems all have great rhythm and melody. Micheline in particular was about free form, where often the meanings of the words don’t really matter—it’s how you’re reading them.
What do you remember about your dad?
I was 14 when he died and there’s not a day where I don’t miss him or think of him. He hated the music business, but he still wanted me to be a musician. He was thrilled when I started on cello and then bass, and he taught me on both. He stressed learning the rudiments—scales, fingering, bowing—and having a consistency on the instrument. If there was an area that didn’t feel right, you focused on that area until it did. He worked really hard at bass, composing was more of a spiritual thing for him. Ultimately, my dad’s legacy for me was that I could find my own way on this planet, and hopefully find my own voice. I feel like I’m well on the way.
HEAR HIM ON
Eric Mingus, Healing Howl [Intuition, 2007]; Ethan Winogrand, Tangled Tango [Cleanfeed, 2007]
Basses 5-string NS Design Electric Double Bass (early prototype); Stambaugh custom 5-string
Strings NS/D’Addario Double Bass Roundwounds; GHS Bass Boomers
Rig Euphonic Audio iAmp 800 combo