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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
March 1, 2013
There are many things to admire about the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra, among which is the (admittedly personal) observation, that it doesn’t sound like a youth band. What’s more (and again it’s maybe just my ears), it has always been this way. Back in the long-ago Mike Beaumont helped create this outstanding big band, which since 1981 has been directed by John Ruddick, and it instantly burst on surprised and delighted audiences with measures of confidence and élan that suggested that the individual musicians in its ranks were experienced veterans. That said, the band’s collective sound gave away its youthful origins through the spirited verve with which the charts were attacked.
In the years that have passed, MYJO has had remarkable success, not least in the BBC’s National Big Band Competition, at first winning the Youth Section, later the Senior division of the Competition. So successful has the band been in this competition that it was recently barred from entering for two years to give other bands a chance. Among famous venues where MYJO has performed are Ronnie Scott’s Club, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican, The Stables at Wavendon, and Symphony Hall in Birmingham. The band has also appeared on television and radio. And just to prove that its merits are not merely apparent to UK audiences and judges, MYJO entered and won the Dutch National Big Band Competition, where it surpassed adult bands from The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. Additionally, MYJO has extended its audience, performing in other European countries, including Switzerland (at the Montreux Jazz Festival), as well as in Russia and the USA.
Regularly over the years, MYJO has featured famous guests from the world of jazz among whom have been Benny Carter, Buddy Childers, Spike Robinson, Bill Berry, John Dankworth, Bobby Shew, Courtney Pine, Alan Barnes, Arturo Sandoval, Guy Barker, Conte Candoli, Bob Florence, Stan Tracey, Lanny Morgan, and Marlene VerPlanck. (The latter will be appearing with the band at a lunchtime gig on 24 March 2013 at Westley Hotel, Acocks Green, Birmingham.)
On their latest album, Have You Heard, which is surely their best yet, MYJO pays special tribute to the late Bob Florence, who was long a champion of this fine band. Of the nine charts, four are by Florence (three of which are his own compositions), while other arrangers whose work is featured are Sammy Nestico, Rob McConnell, Mark Armstrong, Callum Roxburgh and Robert Curnow. The album opens with a scorching take on The Magic Flea, while other tracks have Florence’s 1, 2, 3, a three-movement composition that would thoroughly test any band, Pumpkinette, another Florence composition, and the album title track, a Pat Metheny composition. Band members featured in solos on these and other tracks are trumpeters Nick Dewhurst, Nick Dunham, trombonists Alex Paxton, Tom Dunnett, saxophonists Callum Roxburgh, Andy Isherwood, Alex Woods, Rosie Price, Colin Mills. Throughout, soloists and the crisp and powerful ensembles are supported and driven on by the exceptional rhythm section, all of whom have their solo moments: pianists Richard Morris and Aled Walker, guitarist Doug McMillan, bassist Nick Roberts and drummer Dave Tandy. And so no one is left out, because every member of this superb orchestra deserves mention and praise, the rest of the band on this album are trumpeters Ben Gaskin, Kevin Wedrychowsky, James Horton, Mark James, Chris Pickering, Davis Tibbitts, trombonists Tom Coppins, Joe Smith, Jon Warburton, saxophonists Lauren Peatfield, Alicia Gardener-Trejo, Chris Brown.
There is much more information to be had about the Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra and John Ruddick on the band’s website where you will find full details of upcoming engagements where MYJO can be heard live – and that really is something you should not miss. This site is also where you can find the new and very warmly recommended CD as well as some of the band’s earlier recordings. And if this is your kind of music, then you will also like what John Killoch has to say on his site.
September 19, 2012
A jazz musician of extraordinary ability, Don Ellis was many things: a superb trumpet soloist, a gifted composer, an outstanding bandleader; but perhaps most important of all, he was a master of intricate time signatures. It is this last quality that most readily explains why his music, much of it recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has not aged in the slightest. All of it is as engagingly vibrant as it was on the day it was first played. His big band music is breathtakingly exciting, and always brilliantly performed. The music Don Ellis wrote and arranged for his band consistently demonstrates how far out of his time he truly was. He still is; but this is not to suggest that there is anything too far out of reach, although it might well have seemed that way to some of his listeners three decades ago.
Consider just three of Don Ellis’s many albums; all of them by his big band, which is the way I first heard this masterful musician: Electric Bath (Columbia), Autumn (Columbia) and ‘Live’ at Monterey (Pacific Jazz). Throughout, the band scorches through startling charts, in time signatures as unexpected as 7/4 (Pussy Wiggle Stomp), 17/4 (New Horizons), and 19/4 (33 222 1 222), and swings like mad in all of them. Astonishingly, Don’s music places no severely limiting intellectual demands on the listener; it is all instantly understandable and wholly captivating. And always, there is plenty to stimulate the mind.
For example, the marvelous 20-minute Variations For Trumpet takes the listener through six sections and time signatures of 5/4, 9/4, 7/4 and 32/8. Written down like that, it might seem intimidating, yet it is not in the least difficult to appreciate. In every moment, there is a sense of wonder and joy; section work and solos that bring delight, even laughter, in response to their audacity.
Don Ellis is the star of the show on all of these three CDs, with his writing and hot trumpet playing, complete with experimental use of a ring modulator and a specially made ¼-tone trumpet, and his occasional helping hand on a third drum kit (two drummers and three bass players were the norm). But he never hogs the limelight and there are other notable instrumental soloists: among the brass are Glenn Stuart, Bob Harmon, Glenn Ferris, the saxophonists include Ira Schulman, Sam Falzone and Frank Strozier, while the drummers who keep the exhilaration high include Ralph Humphrey and Steve Bohannon.
Not many bands have taken up the challenges set by Don Ellis during his short lifetime, but reissues such as these present his fans with wonderful opportunities to hear some of the most extraordinary, and some of the best, big band music that has ever been recorded.
Although these thoughts have centered upon his big band material, Don Ellis was by no means restricted to this format. Indeed, hearing his playing with small groups, such as on Haiku, the subtle depths of his work is perhaps more readily apparent, the music delightfully patterned with delicate light and shade.
Don Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44, but his music and his influence and importance live on, something that is strikingly apparent from John Vizzusi’s Electric Heart (Sight & Sounds Films), a video documentary that traces the career of this notable musician. This video is an excellent way in which to learn much about Don Ellis. In this film, Don Ellis’s musical talent is set out, along with clear statements of the respect and admiration others felt for this remarkable man.
Towards the end of the film, one of the few bands that have taken up the challenge of Don Ellis’s music puts in a lively appearance. This is a tribute band that includes in its ranks Sam Falzone and Ralph Humphrey. Through this video it is even more apparent today than it was 30-something years ago, that Don Ellis was timeless. The video is available from the makers at http://www.donellisfilm.com/ and is a must for all who love big band jazz and especially those who have a special place in their hearts for Don Ellis, a true Lord of Time.
And speaking of tribute performances, a Don Ellis reunion band is among the mouthwatering cast assembled by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute for Groovin’ Hard, their 2012 big band spectacular. Among other reunion bands are those featuring the musical legacies of Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Buddy Rich. If you are lucky enough to be in the neighborhood of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel on West Century Blvd between 10 October and 14 October 2012 you can find details at: http://lajazzinstitute.org/