“I'd like to invite you to be part of a DownBeat feature article
on big band recordings.
Please list and comment about your FIVE most favorite big bands
albums. And is there ONE song/track on any big band album that you prize
above all others? If so, name it and type up remarks.”
Since I don’t take my own large ensemble inspiration substantially
from the big band tradition, instead of favorites, I’d like to
name five big band records and a track that have simply been influential
to my development.
My father had this record around when it came out. I was all about the
Beatles at the time, but this record really made an impression so it’s
still a sentimental favorite: Sinatra’s swaggering confidence,
the sound of the band (loose and tight), the exciting arrangements. I
remember even being mesmerized by what I learned later were Stan Cornyn’s
award winning liner notes: setting the scene, the pressing of the tuxedo
pants, etc….back when an eight- or nine-year-old held a big gatefold
LP jacket like that in his arms.
A vital way in which big band music has indeed been influential to my
development involves the music I have played as the guitarist in a number
of student ensembles at Eastman and the New England Conservatory. Specifically
some of this Evans music, African Game (see below), some of the Wheeler
charts, and Maria Schneider under her baton when she was a guest conductor
around the time of Evanescence. In particular with this extra value Evans
reissue 2-fer (New Bottle, Old Wine, and Great
Jazz Standards) you’ve
got brilliant economy of means, unusual combinations of instruments,
and great counterpoint co-existing with delicious vertical sonorities.
Plus, it’s a chance for me to highlight something other than a
couple of the more obvious Gil choices.
Even within the constraints of an academic context George is a great
bandleader, which is where I experienced him and the entirety of this
sprawling suite of the primordial to the futuristic. Having just completed
a trilogy of suites for large jazz orchestra myself with the just released
Cycles Suite, I look back on my time in his ensemble as a formative one.
That band around ‘89 at NEC was really something, including Chris
Speed, Andrew D’Angelo, Cuong Vu, and Chris Wood.
As the ECM aesthetic has drawn my attention for decades, it seems fitting
to indicate this striking double CD package. Here the famed German record
label captures and reverberates the luminous open-horned sound Wheeler
favors, sonically influential for me as much as for any of the content.
Written almost as a concerto for his working quintet at the time (Abercrombie,
Taylor, Holland, Erskine), Norma Winstone’s wonderful contributions
to the record (wordless and otherwise) were also instructive. It’s
interesting to notice that Erskine is the drummer on two of my selections
here, this one and the Joni Mitchell record (below).
This might be stretching the spirit of your inquiry but this record features
a studio orchestra - which is a big band and an orchestra combined. Joni
brought so much gravitas and spiky nuance to these standards – more
so than any number of singers who are better known for rendering this
repertoire. The reinterpretations of two of Joni’s forty-year-old
songs are so elegant and poignant. As for Vince, he took a very difficult
assignment and hit it out of the park by always matching the mood with
the themes, and never violating the delicate balance between varying
the arrangements and featuring the singer. A phenomenal sounding recording,
a song sequence that comprises a credible concept album, and terrific
guest soloists make this extra special.
Much of Ellingtonia has been important to my personal sonic amalgamations,
so Duke won’t mind if I single out only one track as you’ve
requested. This tune reminds us all that something doesn’t have
to be fast or have a lot of notes to get you toward the destination.
Perfectly crafted for Hodges (a lesson in itself), there is also a delicious
complexity here to what sounds like simplicity. With the CD reissue you
can really hear the remarkable air in the room.
Similarly notable: Thad Jones, Clare Fischer, Bob Brookmeyer, Maria