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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