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.

Jazz CDs reviewed – early October 2012

October 6, 2012

Dan Block Duality (Miles High MHR 8620)

A multi-talented jazz musician, Dan Block is in demand as sideman, orchestral player and arranger. On From His World To Mine (Miles High MHR 8612), he presents the music of Duke Ellington, choosing interesting and effective examples from Ellington’s huge contribution to 20th century music. Dan stays away from the familiar and instead plays his own arrangements of pieces many of which are Ellington’s lesser-known works. This CD therefore serves a dual purpose, that of presenting Dan as both soloist and arranger and in making the listener aware of how wide was Ellington’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) mastery of music. Playing principally clarinet and tenor saxophone, Dan is ably aided by a fine accompanying group: Mike Kanan, James Chirillo, Lee Hudson, Brian Grice, Mark Sherman, Renato Thoms and Pat O’Leary.

On a recent album, Duality (Miles High MHR 8620), Dan takes a bold step in teaming himself with other leading lights of contemporary mainstream jazz in a set of mainly duets. His partners here are pianists Ted Rosenthal, a lovely Long Ago And Far Away, and Rosanno Sportiello, bass player Lee Hudson, guitarists Paul Myers, Saul Rubin and Matt Munisteri, vibraphone player Mark Sherman, taking a new look at Bix Beiderbecke’s In The Dark, and singer Catherine Russell on an unusual and highly effective take on Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. There are two trio tracks, on one, the Ellington-Jimmy Blanton classic, Pitter Panther Patter, Dan is joined by fellow reed player Scott Robinson and Ted Rosenthal, on the other by drummer Tim Horner and Lee Hudson. In these duets, Dan plays clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor and baritone saxophones.

Throughout these two exceptional sets, Dan Block vividly demonstrates his deep understanding of and love for all that has happened in jazz over the decades while remaining completely in touch with the style and taste of today.

Dan Block cover






Graham Dechter Takin’ It There (Capri 74117-2)

For his second album as leader, jazz guitarist Graham Dechter is again joined by his fellow rhythm section collaborators from the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Individually, these are all superb musicians and their solo skills are in evidence throughout this outstanding set. Collectively, their experience of playing together at the CHJO rhythm section is vividly apparent. Graham’s choice of music reveals the respect he has for jazz guitarists of an earlier jazz age with selections from the pen or book of Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessell, while other jazzmen so recalled include Lee Morgan and George Coleman. Graham’s musical pedigree is notable: father, a composer, arranger, player in Hollywood; mother, singer; grandfather, music teacher, trombonist (with Stan Kenton). All of this background has been developed so that the guitarist brings to his interpretations a measure of confidence and maturity that far outweighs his years. This is an exceptional album, the ballad selections filled with depth and understanding, the up-tempo pieces overflowing with invention, and throughout these four masterly musicians never fail to swing.

graham dechter cd






Rich Halley 4 Back From Beyond (Pine Eagle 004)

Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has the rare capacity to take elements from the post-bop jazz mainstream and color them with touches that hint at the exhilaration of early free jazz. Often performing his own compositions, Halley is regularly backed by bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley. Their music retains hints of the jazz style of earlier years while never losing the feel of contemporary improvised music. Throughout his recordings, Halley displays imaginative ideas that he executes with considerable flair and polish. On this CD, Halley is teamed with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, a like-minded colleague with whom he has recorded before. This is a set that is filled with imaginative and powerfully played jazz music that allies sensitivity with drama. The support from Reed and Carson Halley is astute and thoughtful, and they weave fluid, driving solos that are filled with fully realized ideas. This is exceptional music, extremely well played by all four of these fine jazz musicians.

Previous releases by Rich Halley on Pine Eagle Records are Live At The Penofin Jazz Festival (Pine Eagle 001), Children Of The Blue Supermarket (Pine Eagle 002) and Requiem For A Pit Viper (Pine Eagle 003).

Rich Halley CD cover






Stephanie Nakasian Show Me The Way To Get Out Of This World (Capri 74115-2)

More than just a jazz singer, Stephanie Nakasian is also a jazz singing teacher and her knowledge and understanding of the art is apparent in all that she does. On this CD, the latest of a dozen or so she has recorded in the past decade, Nakasian draws her repertoire from a wide range of sources, including the jazz world, classic pop, contemporary pop, and Latin. Deftly playing with time signatures, Nakasian brings unexpected variations on familiar themes, yet never strays far from the melodic magic that has made many of the songs timeless. These songs include Lucky So And So, Zanzibar, Nica’s Dream, So In Love, Ill Wind, You And The Night And The Music, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, The End Of A Love Affair and Lonesome Road. On this set, Nakasian’s subtle vocal charm is aided and abetted by Harris Simon, piano, Chris Brydge, bass, and Billy Williams, drums. The pianist is also a jazz music teacher at the College of William and Mary, which is where Nakasian also teaches. Their meeting there led to local gigs from which developed the idea for this wholly admirable album.

Stephanie Nakasian CD cover






Curtis Fuller  Down Home (Capri 74116-2)

During the past few years, jazz trombonist Curtis Fuller has made a small number of outstanding CDs. This late flowering as leader has added to his exceptional cv as a major jazz trombonist whose past accomplishments took him through spells with Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. On recording dates, it is not only the playing of Curtis Fuller that is featured, but also his skill as a jazz composer. This new release teams Fuller with his regular band, which is now in its seventh year: trumpeter Al Hood, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman, pianist Chip Stephens, bassist Ken Walker and drummer Todd Reid. Most of the music here is written and/or arranged by band members and is finely crafted to allow the musicians to display their collective skills as well as their ability to play imaginative, glowing solos. This excellent album will appeal to all who love jazz in the post-bop mainstream. Similarly filled with exceptional music is 2010’s I Will Tell Her (Capri 74100-2), which is also by Curtis Fuller and what he regards as ‘his band of choice’.

Curtis Fuller CD cover






Maria Neckam Unison (Sunnyside SSC 1321)

Among the many jazz singers around today is Austrian-born Maria Neckam. Her crystalline vocal sound brings subtle appeal to a selection of her own songs that owe their intellectual origins to a wide range of sources. Included among the source material is a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, Solitude, and a poem by Persian mystic Hafez, Where Do You Think You Will Be?. Starting out in Vienna, Neckam’s musical education included spells at Amsterdam Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Stylistically, this educational process has taken Neckam through opera and rock, musical theatre and pop, music of the Far East and contemporary improv. Echoes of all these influences can be heard in Neckam’s songs – blending here, contrasting there – to provide a rich and always interesting vocal palette. Neckam’s collaborators on this CD include Aaron Parks, keyboards, Thomas Morgan, bass, and Colin Stranahan, drums, with featured horn players Lars Dietrich, alto saxophone, and Samir Zarif, tenor saxophone. There are also guest appearances by Nir Felder, guitar, Will Vinson, alto saxophone, Kenny Warren, trumpet, Mariel Roberts, cello, and Glenn Zaleski, piano.

Maria Neckam CD cover






Ithamara Koorax Got To Be Real (Irma Records IRM 922 CD)

Although most of Ithamara Koorax’s work cleaves closely to her Brazilian roots, she has a good ear for jazz and from time to time hints of this appear on CDs such as Ithamara Koorax Sings The Luiz Bonfá Songbook (King), Love Dance: The Ballad Collection (Som Livre) and Brazilian Butterfly (Irma). There are many attractions on these CDs and her interpretations of a largely non-jazz repertoire are elegant and eloquent. Ithamara is very much in a jazz mood on Serenade In Blue (Milestone) and Autumn In New York (Huks Music). On the former, she moves confidently towards the jazz genre, which is fully and successfully embraced with the latter where she swings elegantly through an always interesting set of mainly standards, backed by a tight-knit trio. Ithamara Koorax in NY CD coverThese sensitive interpretations of lyrics and inventive improvisations combine to make this a CD deserving of the high praise it has received. With Obrigado: Dom Um Romao (TCB), Ithamara memorably reflects upon a planned European tour on which she was to have worked with Dom Um Romao and the Peter Schärli Trio. Romao’s death intervened and it was decided to go ahead with the tour but that no attempt would be made to replace his remarkable talent. It was during this tour that the music on this CD was recorded by Swiss radio, and the result is some exceptionally fine playing and singing. Peter is an inventive trumpet player with a softly burning tone, and Ithamara’s singing leans slightly towards the mainstream that she embraced so well on Autumn In New York.

Ithamara and Peter are reunited for a delightful selection of songs on O Grande Amor (TCB), a 2010 session of mainly Brazilian songs intriguingly colored with subtle jazz improvisations from the trio that underline and uplift the singer’s effortless styling, the fiery core of Peter’s trumpet playing contrasting vividly with Ithamara’s glowing vocal sound. Ithamara Koorax CD coverOn 2012’s Got To Be Real (Irma), Ithamara is once again centered on Brazilian music, but with a repertoire that includes a few standards albeit colored with subtle overtones drawn from her musical heritage. In whatever mood, Ithamara Koorax is a singer to savor.



Reviews of some of these CDs are among the hundreds appearing in Jazz Journal, a monthly magazine that also features articles about international jazz musicians past and present.

You can learn more about any of these albums at the artist’s or the record company’s website.

If you want to buy them, go to Amazon.


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