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Fank-John Hadley:
“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.”

***

Chris Jentsch:
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.

Sinatra at the Sands (1966)
Frank Sinatra with Count Basie and Quincy Jones
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.

The Complete Pacific Jazz Sessions (1958/59)
Gil Evans
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.

The African Game (1983)
George Russell
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.

Music for Large and Small Ensembles (1990)
Kenny Wheeler
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).

Both Sides Now (2000)
Joni Mitchell (arr. Vince Mendoza)
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.

“Isfahan” (1966) from The Far East Suite
Duke Ellington featuring Johnny Hodges
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 Schneider.