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The Resurgance of the swinging Big Band
It was a typical bitter cold evening: January, 1978 in St Louis. 24 years old, I was only begining to discover jazz. I was listening to musicians like Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Keith Jarrett, and thinking I was very, very hip. I was eager to expose myself to a wide range of styles, so I attended every concert or club appearence by anyone who performed in the gateway city who was not disco oriented. That’s how I stumbled upon the legendary Count Basie and his Orchestra, in for a mid- week gig at the now shuttered Barn Dinner Theater.
Basie’s Orchestra has been described as a roaring, whispering, gleeful, bluesy, singing,swinging giant of an aggregation. I settled into my first cocktail of the night with no clue of what I was about to experience. Soon, I was transfixed. Basie’s relaxed comping backed the warm precision of the reeds. The powerful Buddy Rich-inspired drumming of Butch Miles drove the smooth insistent swing of guitarist Freddy Green and the rhythm section. This band rocked, rocked, rocked. It was sixteen men swinging and one of my most cherished musical experiences.
Sadly, by the time Ellington passed in 1974, and Basie in 1984, the great big bands that had enthralled lovers of popular music since the twenties were nearly extinct. The great leaders were dying, formula rock, disco, or fringe punk music was dominating the airwaves. Most major record labels had no interest in perpetuating the big band sound. But after that magical evening with Basie, I was hooked for life and began to listen to Basie’s great Decca recordings from the Thirties, discovering classics like One o’clock Jump, Lester leaps In, and Jumpin at the Woodside.
Love him or hate him, Wynton Marsallis has led the resurgence of jazz in general, and thankfully has exposed many to the joys of big band swinging through his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In New York, there is a vibrant new big band scene, and great labels like Verve, Mosaic, Blue Note and CBS Sony are releasing excellent new recordings and a treasure trove of important reissues. Lets take a look at some of the notable releases in the last few years that you might want to check out.
Joe Henderson Big Band - (Verve 314 533 451-2)
The great tenor man, Henderson, leads an all star big band that absolutely burns through a program of his great compositions like Isotope, Black Narcissus and A Shade of Jade.Influenced by Stan kenton’s 1952- 1954 editions,Henderson has been working in earnest on this project since 1966.Featuring greats like Chick Corea ,Freddie Hubbard, Slide Hampton and Christian McBride, Joe Henderson adds his own concepts of jazz orchestration to his stellar recording career with this stunning release.
Maria Schneider -Coming About (Enja 9069 2 )
Born in 1960, Schneider came to New york City in 1985 to study jazz composition with Bob Brookmeyer. Soon after, the great Gil Evans accepted her as his assistant. She worked with Evans on many projects before she founded her own orchestra in 1989.She found a home at the jazz club Visiones where she has been featured every Monday night for the past three years.
Her two recent releases on Enja, “Evanescence” and “Coming About”have been recognized as new peaks in orchestral jazz and have earned her Grammy nominations and widespread critical recognition.Her compositions feature the hallmarks of her mentor, Mr. Evans - beauty, drama and exquisite technique.Keep your ears tuned to this ambitious, dedicated young composer and leader.
The Dutch Jazz Orchestra-Portrait of a Silk Thread Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn (Kokopelli 131)0
Duke Ellington The Great Paris Concert (Atlantic 304-2)
Of course Duke Ellington was and is a major figure on the big band scene.His orchestra thrilled millions, and virtually performed almost every night on the concert or dance hall circuit.(For a mere 50 years)
The Great Paris Concert recorded at the Olympia theatre in 1963,is a beautifully recorded example of the majic Duke and his men made, crisscrossing the world from Paris to St Louis to Fargo North Dakota.Duke was all about color, subtle shades of every variation of blue that sends shivers down your spine.He wrote for the great individual players in the band . From alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges demonstrating his breathtaking range of emotional expression on All of Me and On the Sunny Side of the Street,to the majestic brooding power of trumpet genius Cootie Williams on Concerto For Cootie, The Great Paris Concert is pure Ducal delight.
Portrait of a Silk Thread is a revelation. Billy Strayhorn,Duke’s alter ego and long under appreciated composer-orchestrator, was in Duke’s words “a great, distinguished and rather eminent personage”.The Dutch Jazz Orchestra, under the leadership of Jerry Van Rooljen, introduces us to eight world premiere Strayhorn compositions,each performed precisely as he would have done.. The title track stands as a metaphor for Billy Strayhorn- a silk thread is invisible but strong,and capable of weaving beautiful and intricate patterns.
Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra - Desert Lady Fantasy (Columbia 57856)
Pianist and band leader Toshiko Akiyoshi and her husband, the brilliant flute and saxophonist, Lew Tabackin have made many small group recordings individually. But they have devoted their working life together to their big band projects. Akiyoshi, greatly influenced by Ellington, has said she likes to tell stories in her music. Desert lady Fantasy has a cinematic quality to it that paints vivid pictures in your mind. Tabackin’s flute on the title track makes you think of magical near eastern worlds and you feel the exhilaration of the journey throughout.
Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis Orchestra- The Complete Solid State Recordings ( Mosaic MD 151)
The Jones/ Lewis orchestra was an aggregation of New Yorks finest musicians making big-city, big band jazz of the highest order.Organized in 1966 as a rehearsel band that met once a week, the Jones/Lewis Orchestra performed each Monday at The Village Vanguard. The all star band featured the likes of Bob Brookmeyer, Hank Jones, Richard Davis, and Snooky Young among others.Each week they ripped through Thad Jones’s adventurous compositions to the delight of the Vanguard’s enthusiastic regulars. This limited edition four disc set includes their complete recordings for Solid State.You can still hear their offspring, The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra performing each Monday, twenty eight years later.(Mosaic recordings are available by mail order. Call 203-327-7111 for their most recent catalog.)
Kansas City, Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Verve ) A Robert Altman Film
Jazz...Crime...Race...Politics As the liner notes state, in 1934 Kansas City was a schizophrenic time and place. In the middle of the depression, Kansas City’s machine politics and mafia control ensured for a perverse kind of prosperity and a hotbed of boiling hot jazz. Bennie Moten, Count Basie,Jay McShann and the young Charlie Parker engaged in competitive, swinging after hours cutting contests to create a new peak in African American music.The band on this set( which toured extensively last year) features rising stars Nicholas Payton, James Carter, Geri Allen, and established greats like David “fathead” Newman, Joe Henderson And Ron Carter.I understand that the Altman film was horrible. This soundtrack album however, burns with fire and energy.
Mingus Big Band-Live In Time (Dreyfus FDM 36583-2)
Named as “Best Big Band” in The Down Beat Critics Poll, The Mingus Big Band is devoted soley to performing the challenging works and carrying on the legacy of the great bassist/composer, Charles Mingus.As Sue Mingus says in the liner notes,” each Thursday night the band launches fresh charts from its basement cauldron that pulls everyone who happens to be around into some of the most urgent composition in twentieth century american music.”This two disc set captures the band in full flight.
Count Basie - The Complete Roulette Live recordings of Count Basie and His Orchestra, 1959-1962. (Mosaic MD8-135)
Count Basie- April in Paris (Verve Master Edition)
The Complete Roulette Lve Recordings are eight Cds of absolutely stunning performances of Count and his men at the peak of their powers.Culled from what was termed their new testament period (as opposed to the first great Basie orchestra, started in 1935 and called the Old testament band) ,the band provides ample evidence that they were balancing great dance hall swing with the refined charts of their brilliant arrangers Thad jones, Frank Foster, Ernie wilkins, and Neil Hefti.Like the Jones/ lewis set, you can order this collection directly from Mosaic. But hurry, supplies are running low.
April in Paris, recorded in the mid fifties has recently been reissued as a Verve Master Edition featuring delux Packaging and sound. During this time, Basie had fallen victim to economic realities and a shift in public taste.”Paris” was a comeback recording of sorts and produced a pop hit in the title tune.
Thinking back to that magical evening in January of 1978 at the Basie show i attended, I will never forget meeting Count backstage and getting his autograph on a scrap of paper.A friend who was with me that evening was very nervous when we were visiting with the Count. He was having trouble lighting his cigarette, and Count noticing this, pulled out a lighter and said “here, let me take care of that for you” Needless to say, we left the building that night on cloud nine!