Dave Tough – Little Giant

November 27, 2012

 

During his short and troubled life, Dave Tough consistently proved himself to be a masterful drummer, comfortable in a wide range of settings, willing to confront and overcome stylistic revolutions. He always displayed musical, technical and intellectual gifts, that might well have taken him to the top of any artistic pursuit and served him for a generous lifetime. At times, he seemed to have the ambition for this; but he also had disturbing flaws that not only circumscribed his career but also tragically shortened his life.

He was born, David Jarvis Tough, on 26 April 1907, in Oak Park, Illinois. First playing drums while a small child, he was still a Chicago schoolboy when he became, appropriately enough, a member of the Austin High School Gang. Not quite what their name implied, this was a loose gathering of white tyro jazzmen all of whom were fascinated with black jazz musicians whose playing set alight the clubs and speakeasies of 1920s Chicago. Deeply influenced by these musicians, the Gang formulated what became known as Chicago-style jazz and Dave, who early mastered the art of playing subtle and infectiously swinging drums, was a significant member of the group.

In that same decade, Dave visited Europe and also spent time in New York City where he made records under the nominal leadership of other members of the Chicago school, notably Eddie Condon and Red Nichols but by the start of the 1930s, this tiny and frail young man was repeatedly struck by illnesses that more robust individuals might have shrugged off. He thus began the new decade inauspiciously, spending many months inactive through illness.

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This was a portent of the future; and he gave himself no help by drinking heavily. By 1935, however, Dave was ready to make a mark in a different area of jazz. Until now, the bulk of his work had been in small groups, but the big bands that would dominate the forthcoming swing era were on the rise. He played first with Tommy Dorsey, then moved swiftly (and often fleetingly) through many bands: Red Norvo, Bunny Berigan, Benny Goodman, back to Tommy Dorsey, then Jimmy Dorsey, Bud Freeman, Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, and others, including depping with Woody Herman.

There were several reasons for his restlessness. Dave insisted on musical perfection: while this was a characteristic shared by some of the leaders for whom he played, it was ignored by others. Added to personal differences, he had an intense dislike for the characterless music demanded by the realities of commercial success that were a sometimes onerous feature of life in the swing era. And there was his own occasionally unstable personality, a characteristic aggravated by his drinking, which was now sometimes excessive. In his private life, he flouted the racial and social taboos of the time by marrying a black dancer. He also found himself often at odds with former musical associates, and sought to establish an alternative career as a writer. He was briefly inducted into the military during World War 2, playing for a short while in the US Navy band directed by Artie Shaw, but was soon discharged on medical grounds.

It was shortly after his discharge that Dave made his greatest impact on the jazz world when he joined Woody Herman. As the records of Herman’s First Herd were played around the world, fans of big band jazz became aware that for all his physical frailty, tiny Dave Tough was a powerful giant among drummers. Yet, despite his undoubted playing skills, Dave had serious doubts about his suitability for bop.

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It certainly didn’t help that his drinking habit had by now became uncontrollable. Observers at the time remarked upon the combination of his discomfort with his role in the changing jazz scene and a deterioration in his physical and mental state, and how it led inexorably to fits. Sometimes, and deeply disturbing to fellow musicians and audiences alike, these fits occurred on the bandstand.

Many of the people who knew him, did their best to help him; not just musician friends but also the writer Leonard Feather and impresario John Hammond Jnr. But Dave would not be helped; portents of disaster had shadowed his entire professional life, and finally they came to pass. Exactly what happened one winter night can never be known. He appears to have fallen in the street while walking home from a gig. Maybe he had another fit; perhaps he was drunk; or he might simply have slipped or stumbled in the dark. Whatever the cause, he fell, fractured his skull, and died from the injury on 9 December 1948 in Newark, New Jersey. For three days, his body lay in the morgue unclaimed, indeed unrecognized.

Whether playing in the small Chicago-style groups of which he was a charter member, or in any of the big bands to which he brought uncommon fluidity, Dave consistently demonstrated his subtle talents.

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It was with Woody Herman, however, that he reached the apogee of his brief but shining career. In that band Dave Tough exceeded even his own high standards, urging along one of the finest of the Swing Era’s jazz orchestras with sizzling enthusiasm, flair and irresistible swing that was rarely equaled and almost never surpassed.

Drumming Delights

February 28, 2015

I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.

Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)

As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.women drummers

Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.

To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.

Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.

Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man

Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?

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Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.Duke-at-Fargo-1-150x150

So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions.Blanton-Webster-150x150 Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.

Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.

Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.

For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.

Jazz & (mostly) other CDs – late-May 2016

May 24, 2016

 

During the past few decades the boundaries between jazz and other musical genres have become steadily more blurred. This observation is well illustrated by these four albums, which together bring a heady mix of styles.

Victor & Penny Electricity (Overtone VP 101)

For the past five or so years, Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane have been working together, touring and delighting audiences with their intriguing performances. Billed as Victor & Penny, they are heard here with their Loose Change Orchestra. Victor (Jeff) plays guitar and Penny (Erin) plays ukelele, and both sing. While Victor’s singing is confined mostly to harmonizing with Penny, she has several features. On uptempo songs, she has a slightly nasal quality that suits the music and the mood, while on ballads she her vocal sound is clear, unforced and youthful. Instrumentally, they are skilled practitioners, Victor playing several very good solos and Penny using the lighter toned sound of the ukelele as a driving to help drive the group. The most featured instrumental soloist in The Loose Change Orchestra is James Isaac on clarinet (he also plays soprano saxophone and melodica), the other leading members being Rick Willoughby, bass & ukelele bass, and Kyle Dahlquist, trombone, while also on hand are Paton Goskie, violin, and Dustin Ransom who plays accordion, mandolin, piano and Hammond B-3 organ. Nine of the ten tracks are composed by Victor and Penny (one of these, Say Goodbye, with Cody Wyoming) and they are richly varied in concept, structure and style. Among them are Day Off Boogie, which brings to mind late swing era jump bands, Rickshaw Chase, an engaging up-tempo piece that carries Klezmer echoes, and Penny’s Pounce and Hide, Seek, both with fine instrumental solos. The only non-original is Gordon (Sting) Sumner’s Moon Over Bourbon Street, which here has an air that perhaps owes more to Europe than New Orleans – although even in name the city is the most European in North America.v and p Victor & Penny have won awards from folk-oriented organizations and while jazz and folk do not readily come to mind as compatible bedfellows this raises the side issue of pigeon-holing. The term ‛folk’ actually describes a richly varied genre in much the same way that ‛jazz’ means many things to many people. Only slight broadening of the folk genre brings in some aspects of country, bluegrass for example, and it is only a very small stretch to think of the long-ago popularity of the western-swing of Bob Wills and the early work of Chet Atkins (his quartet with George Benson), as well as, more recently, several artists who move comfortably through many of these genres: Bela Flek and April Barrows come readily to mind. But all this is digressing from this very pleasing album although there is a reason for this. I hope it’s not just me, but I think it is unfairly limiting to tack a genre label onto this hugely entertaining group. That said, I think that the apparent need for labeling (by promoters, radio outlets and the like) inhibits musicians of this quality. Victor & Penny and their colleagues deserve to be heard by all who like to hear good music well played by skilful artists.

Antonio Adolfo Tropical Infinito (AAM 0710)

The musical genres blended here are Brazilian samba and hard-bop jazz of the early 1960s and while others have done this before during the past half century, pianist Antonio Adolfo does it with effortless flair and instrumental skill. Antonio is joined here by the driving rhythm team of guitarists Leo Amuedo and Claudio Spievak, bassist Jorge Helder, drummer Rafael Barata, and percussionist André Siqueira. a.a.-tropicoThere are also fine soloists in Jessé Sadoc, trumpet and flugelhorn, Marcelo Martins, saxophones, and Serginho Trombone who, appropriately enough, plays trombone. The horn players are all in fine form, Jessé delivering flowing, lyrical solos that have depth and intensity; Serghino’s playing is forcefully dramatic; Marcelo, who plays tenor and soprano, has a tough, no-nonsense approach that ably bridges to two musical genres. The pieces played here are four of Antonio’s originals, two by Benny Golson (Whisper Not and Killer Joe), Horace Silver’s Song For My Father, Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments, and one standard, All The Things You Are. All are arranged by Antonio and he seamlessly blends the styles and ensures that there is ample solo space for his talented colleagues. This is a lively and thoroughly entertaining set that should appeal to many, be they fans of jazz or the music of Brazil.

Carol Saboya Carolina (AAM 0709)

Brazilian singer Carol Saboya has a pleasingly soft vocal sound that admirably suits all of the music she performs. Heard here are three songs written or co-written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, (Passarim, A Felicidade, Olha, Maria), two by Latin Grammy Achievement Award winner Djavan (Avião, Faltando Um Pedaço), three by other leading Brazilian composers, as well as two pop songs, Sting’s Fragile and Lennon and McCartney’s Hello, Goodbye. carol_saboya_capaCarol is accompanied here by her constant collaborator, pianist and arranger Antonio Adolfo, along with several members of his regular group: Marcelo Martins, flute and soprano saxophone, Leo Amuedo (and Claudio Spievak), guitar, Jorge Helder, bass, Rafael Barata, drums, and André Siqueira, percussion. Throughout, the music has an engaging airiness, reflecting the spaciousness of the homeland of the performers and most of the composers and lyricists. Reflective, soothing, accomplished.

Nána Simopoulos Skins (Na Records NR 9206 2)

Noted in many areas of the arts Nána Simopoulos has composed music for several contemporary dance companies, including Dance Theatre of Harlem, scores for motion pictures and theatrical productions, as well as music for classical ensembles. An important part of Nána’s musical training came during her teenage years when she traveled from America to Greece. First recording in her own name in 1984, she has worked with leading jazz musicians including Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, her albums including two on Enja Records.nana She has also led her own groups, including World Music of Nána. All eight tracks heard here are Nána’s own compositions and the range of her inspirational sources is readily apparent, most particularly the music and the poetry of the east. Singing and playing guitar and bouzouki, Nána is joined by a dozen instrumentalists noted in world music and in jazz, along them being saxophonist Dave Liebman, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, and drummer Royal Hartigan. Always interesting, this new release will be welcomed by Nána’s many fans around the world.

Carla Hassett +Blue (Paulista unnumbered)

Although born in Brazil, Carla Hassett was raised in Chicago where she lived amidst the city’s Brazilian community. As a result, she was exposed to many musical forms, including those of her homeland. Becoming a professional singer, she worked with local bands singing blues, funk, pop and many of the song styles of Latin America. Settling in Los Angeles, Carla worked extensively in recording studios as backing singer to leading names in pop, as well as in film and television studios, singing on soundtracks. She also worked in musical education, including teaching at Silverlake Conservatory of Music. Although she admires, respects and sings music composed by distinguished Brazilians, Carla also writes much of the music she performs.carla blue On this album, seven of the ten songs are her own, among them the samba flavored Pois É E Tal and Sangue Da Terra, and a touch of bossa nova is heard on Sem Calor. When Carla’s sunny and airy vocal sound is combined with her lyrics she brings to life the images that her many of her compatriots must carry in their minds. She is accompanied here by instrumentalists from both her homeland her adopted country. Heard here are the sounds of the guitar, accordion, trumpet, trombone, keyboards and of course percussion. Among the players are guitarist João Pedro Mourão, bassist Andre de Santanna, and percussionist Leonardo Costa, who provide a propulsive rhythmic undertow. The closing track, South American Way, is a nod of appreciation to Carmen Miranda although Carla’s treatment comes as a welcome surprise as she reflects on the sadness of those who live far from home.

More information on all of these artists can be found at Jim Eigo’s Jazz Promo Services.

Other informative and entertaining sites to visit:-

Jazz Journal – ۝

Vintage Bandstand – ۝

Jazz Flashes – ۝

Jazz Wax – ۝

Frank Griffith – ۝

John Robert Brown – ۝

Jazz CD Reviews – August 2015

August 10, 2015

Ellen Johnson Form & Formless (Vocal Visions VV 3000)

The title displays the musical thinking behind Ellen Johnson’s new album. Some of the songs, those with “form” are by jazz masters, among whom are John Coltrane, Naima, Thelonious Monk, Round Midnight, Charles Mingus, Weird Nightmare, and Sonny Rollins, St Thomas, the last named having lyrics by Ellen herself. On most of these “form” songs, Ellen is accompanied by guitarist Larry Koonse (with trumpeter Nolan Shaheed contributing an evocative solo on the Monk song).ellen j The “formless” songs draw their description from the work of poet Lao Tzu while their style is that of free improvisation created in the moment by Ellen who is mostly accompanied here by guitarist John Stowell. Speaking of the latter group of songs, Ellen has said, “I love the challenge of free improvisation, so having the opportunity to be supported by two amazing guitarists who are at home in this element made the project an absolute delight.” Throughout all these songs, form and formless, Ellen’s ability to explore the inner workings of mind and heart are vividly displayed. So too is her skill in bringing an almost visual quality to a song through her use of aural imagery. This particular skill is especially apparent here because most of these songs do not have lyrics. Rather, Ellen uses her captivating vocal sound – throughout clear, rich and emotion-filled – as a musical instrument. While Ellen’s interpretations provide guidance, the listener can bring to the occasion personal feelings and memories and the whole experience becomes thoroughly rewarding and one that must surely appeal to audiences from all walks of jazz and contemporary improvised music.

Ellen’s talent extends beyond singing and lyric writing, ranging widely to include education – she presents courses at the California Jazz Conservatory. She is also an accomplished author and in this latter capacity has recently published Jazz Child: Portrait of Sheila Jordan, reviewed here a little while ago.

All of Ellen’s albums, and her book can be found at Amazon.

Mark Winkler JAZZ and Other Four Letter Words (Café Pacific CPCD 45125)

Those who like jazz singing that is very much in the moment yet recalls the hip and cool elements of its splendid past will like Mark Winkler a lot. His tough-edged light baritone vocal sound brings to the lyrics he sings an air of urban sophistication and understanding. Some of these lyrics are from the Great American Songbook, others are drawn from Mark’s extensive list of compositions. Examples here include I Chose The Moon (music by Bill Cantos), Stay Hip (Rich Eames) and My Idea Of A Good Time (Greg Gordon Smith). winklerMark is accompanied here by some excellent instrumentalists, notably two trios. One of these has Jamieson Trotter, piano, Dan Lutz, Bass, and Mike Shapiro, drums, while the other has Jamieson with John Clayton, bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums. Joining Mark on two songs, I’m Hip and I Wish I Were In Love Again, is Cheryl Bentyne, long a driving force in vocal group Manhattan Transfer. It is good to see that Mark is helping ensure the future of his craft through jazz education, especially at UCLA Extension and the LA School of Songwriting with his course, “Creating Great Lyrics: A Songwriters Workshop”. This always swinging selection of songs is Mark’s 14th album as leader and will surely appeal to many.

Mark Christian Miller Crazy Moon (Sliding Jazz Door)

For many years Mark Christian Miller has been deeply involved in many aspects of the music business. After learning piano and baritone horn while still in childhood, he sang with light opera companies while extending his musical studies in both piano and voice and also performed as a solo act on the Los Angeles supper club circuit. He made his first own-name album around the turn of the century but for many years worked mainly as artist manager and booker as well as on the production side of music festivals. Encouraged to return to performing, Mark teamed up with pianist Josh Nelson to plan this album. Backed by the core trio of Josh, bassist Dave Robaire and drummer Sammy Miller, Mark presents an interesting selection of songs. While a couple of these, Wrap Your In Dreams and Cheek To Cheek, are familiar, mostly songs heard here are lesser-known works by major songwriters.mc miller Among these are Second Chance, by Andre and Dorothy Langdon Previn, Oh, You Crazy Moon, by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, April Fooled Me, by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and Almost In Your Arms, by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Mark’s voice is clear, tuneful and mature, while his interpretations of lyrics are insightful. Also heard here are instrumentalists Ron Stout, trumpet, Bob Sheppard, bass clarinet, Larry Koonse, guitar, and Billy Hulting, percussion, all of whom bring excellent solo and supportive touches to the occasion. Arrangements are by Mark and Josh and Jamieson Trotter.

For more information on Mark Winkler and Mark Christian Miller see their websites and that of Mouthpiece Music. These albums can be found through these sites and at Amazon.

Big Band Jazz

April 22, 2015

Way back in the 1980s, together with Mike Pinfold I worked on a book about big band jazz. Not surprisingly, most of the bands we wrote about in The Big Band Years were from the past, especially those that were active in the 1930s and early 1940s. But we did touch upon more recent bands, because, contrary to frequent predictions and declarations, the big band years were not yet dead. And today, many years after our book was published in 1988, big bands are still alive and swinging although they are very different from the bands of the past. Many of these newer bands are brought together because composers and arrangers want to hear their work and the sidemen, many now working in studios (and some forced into “day jobs”) enjoy the opportunity to play this kind of music just for the love of it.Blue Notes-stretched-xtra Rehearsal bands were touched upon in our (sadly out-of-print) book and it is good to know that this kind of band is still with us. There are also hundreds of college and university bands (mainly in the USA); in the post-swing era it was from groups such as these that some of the surviving bands drew recruits. Today, there are even a few (that’s very few) that get together on a fairly regular basis and some of these play at prestigious venues. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis is one example, the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra is another. It is a handful of albums by some latterday big bands that prompts these notes; one from 1992, two from 2005, and one from 2011. All of these vividly, and in different ways, display why this kind of music still maintains its hold on audiences around the world.

Jimmy Heath Little Man Big Band (Verve 314 513 956-2)

Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone, leads: Virgil Jones, John Eckert, Bob Millikan, Lew Soloff, Claudio Roditi – trumpets; Benny Powell, Eddie Bert, Jack Jeffers, John Mosca – trombones; Jerome Richardson, Ted Nash, Danny Bank, Billy Mitchell, Bill Easley, Loren Schoenberg – saxophones; Roland Hanna – piano, Tony Purrone – guitar, Ben Brown – bass, Lewis Nash – drums, Steve Kroon – percussion.j heath bb

On this 1992 recording can be heard echoes of the tradition, section work, brass and reeds, bringing to mind second-stage Count Basie. Over the years, Jimmy Heath was known best for his work in small groups, but here, leading, playing and writing, he admirably demonstrates his all-round ability in jazz. The ensembles, while reflective of late Basie are always original and are outstanding, forming as they do excellent vehicles for a succession of exceptional soloists. Although in some respects this set can be seen as a personal tour-de-force by the leader, Jimmy Heath never hogs the spotlight and there is a succession of imaginative solos by, among many, Roland Hanna, Claudio Roditi, Billy Mitchell, Benny Powell and Tony Purrone. Among the music performed here are Jimmy Heath signature pieces, CTA and Gingerbread Boy, as well as The Voice Of The Saxophone, Forever Sonny and Trane Connection. Big band fans will find much here that meets expectations and brings great pleasure.

Dave Holland Overtime (Sunnyside SSC 3028)

Dave Holland, double bass, leads: Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, Alex Spiagin – trumpets; Jonathan Arons, Robin Eubanks, Josh Roseman – trombones; Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan – saxophones; Steve Nelson – vibraphone & marimba, Billy Kilson – drums.dh ot

Noticeably drawing inspiration from a more recent musical standpoint, this 2005 set brings a post-bop ambiance to charts that allow ample scope for some key soloists of modern music who improvise impressively; and it should be noted that there are also several imaginative and exhilarating duets hereon. Joining Dave Holland in the engine room are Steve Nelson, whose vibraphone style is clipped yet articulate, and drummer Billy Kilson, powerful yet capable of subtle cushioning when required. This unusual three-piece rhythm section provides an always swinging base for the brass and reed sections who play with considerable verve. Among the notable brass and reed soloists are Chris Potter, Antonio Hart, Mark Gross and Robin Eubanks. The rhythm team also become involved in sometimes breathtaking exchanges with the horn sections and soloists. Big band playing needs more than power and flair, it also needs understanding and subtlety and all of this is here in abundance.

The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra Live @ MCG (MCG Jazz MCGJ 1017)

John Clayton, bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums, co-leading: Eugene ‛Snooky’ Young, Sal Cracchiolo, Clay Jenkins, Gilbert Castellanos, Bijon Watson – trumpets; George Bohanon, Ira Nepus, Ryan Porter, Maurice Spears – trombones; Charles Owens, Jeff Clayton, Lee Callet, Rickey Woodard, Keith Fiddmont – saxophones; Tamir Hendelman – piano, Randy Napoleon – guitar, Christoph Luty – bass.c-h live mcg

Recorded live at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen Guild in May 2004, this band is one of that happy few that get to play regularly and this can be heard in the manner in which they combine a togetherness of purpose with an enviably loose swing. John Clayton’s charts are at the base of the band’s success along with the punching drive of Jeff Hamilton. Throughout, the bite of the brass section and the incisive yet flowing reeds are a joy to hear. Among the many exceptional soloists are Ricky Woodard, on Georgia and Jody Grind, where Ryan Porter is also featured, and Tamir Hendelman and George Bohanon, both of whom appear on Lullaby Of The Leaves, and it should be noted that this John Clayton chart was nominated as Best Instrumental Arrangement at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards. The co-leaders are also heard in solos, Hamilton’s being crisp brief moments while Clayton displays his technical brilliance and musical artistry on Nature Boy. Familiar themes from past masters of jazz are heard, among them Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, Thelonious Monk’s Evidence, with the trumpets blazing away, Ray Brown’s Captain Bill, on which both bass players excel, and Sonny Stitt’s Eternal Triangle, a breakneck romp from brass and reeds. And speaking of past masters, Snooky Young was 85 years old at the time of this Pittsburgh gig, but when he solos on Like A Lover the years just melt away.

Christian McBride The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue MAC 1053)

Christian McBride, double bass, leading: Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Nicholas Payton, Nabate Isles – trumpets; Steve Davis, Michael Dease, James Burton, Douglas Purviance – trombones; Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Todd Williams, Loren Schoenberg, Carl Maraghi – saxophones; Xavier Davis – piano, Ulysses Owens, Jr. – drums, Melissa Walker – vocal.cmcb bb

With an enviable reputation as a supporting player, Christian McBride is also a soloist of exceptional skill who is always exciting (not a quality readily associated with bass players). It is yet another facet of this remarkable musician that is on display here, that as arranger. This 2011 recording is his first as leader of a big band and he takes this new departure with considerable skill. His charts are in a late-Basie style, with sparkling ensembles, freewheeling saxophones, punching brass and rhythm, with here and there hints of Ellingtonia, as for example on Broadway, with it’s melodic nod to Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’. Good solos abound, from Nicholas Payton, Steve Davis and Steve Wilson, as well as Xavier Davis and the leader himself. Melissa Walker’s fluid yet tough-edged vocal sound fits in admirably with the big band sound on When I Fall In Love, The More I See You and A Taste Of Honey. Throughout this set, the musicianship is of the highest standard, wholly integrated ensemble playing, imaginative solos, and an ever-present sense of delight that comes through every note played and embraces the listener.

Big band fans will have noticed that the five leaders of the four bands here include three bass players. There were not many of them during the long history of this kind of music; Charles Mingus, of course, and Chubby Jackson, Andy Kirk at a stretch because his Clouds of Joy was not really a big band, and that’s about it. Also in that group of five leaders there is a drummer, and neither have there been too many drummer-leaders. Coincidence perhaps, that in these present days when big bands are rare, it is the backroom boys who are stepping into the limelight. Whatever the reason – personal, musical, creative – it is more, much more, then merely welcome. It is an absolute delight. Long may they and their peers and successors continue to bring big band music to the world of jazz.bby

All of the albums mentioned here can be found at Amazon.

What’s more, if you go into the second-hand bookshops linked to Amazon you will find copies of The Big Band Years by Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, often at ridiculously low prices. Mike and I get nothing out of sales such as these, but it is drawn to your attention for the historical perspective it will bring to the music heard today. And there are also visual delights to be had from The Big Band Years because of the many photographs of those bygone days. Almost all of these came from the collection of the late Franklin S. Driggs, some only rarely appearing in print. These pictures alone make it worth spending a little time looking for a copy of this book.

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