Germany’s world–class SWR Big Band, which began life in 1951 as Erwin Lehn’s Südfunk–Orchester, marked its golden anniversary this year by releasing not one but three consistently spectacular albums. The first, Goldener Meilenstein,
features compositions and arrangements by one of America’s most prominent big–band leaders, Bob Florence, while 50 Jahre,
a marvelous two–disc set, covers the years 1956–2000 with thirty–three well–chosen numbers played by the orchestra and a who’s who of Jazz luminaries from the U.S. and abroad. When Lehn stepped down in 1991 after forty years at the helm, his brilliant career was acknowledged by the release of yet another outstanding two–disc set, 40 Jahre Jazz.
What is markedly impressive is how little duplication there is between that compendium and 50 Jahre.
Only three selections — “Where or When” (1981), featuring trombonist Joe Gallardo; “Stratosphäre” (1956) with Lehn soloing on vibes; and “Pole Position” (1987), showcasing pianist Jörg Reiter — appear on both sets, and each of them is well worth hearing again. Following Lehn’s retirement the Südfunk–Orchester became the SDR Big Band, which later merged with the SWF Big Band to become the SWR (please don’t ask what any of those initials stand for; we neither speak nor read German). What we can say is that SWR is a formidable big band by any measure, and that 50 Jahre
provides a superb chronicle of its prowess. The ensemble’s guest stars certainly don’t damage the cause either. After Maynard Ferguson (on trumpet and valve trombone) jump–starts Disc 1 with a fiery reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” we hear from Rob McConnell (“Fred”), trumpeter Ack van Rooyen (alone on “Basin Street Blues,” with trombonist Kai Winding on “Monobone”), Toots Thielemans (“The Nearness of You”), alto Herb Geller (“My Inspiration”), tenors Sal Nistico (“Sal–utation”) and Bob Mintzer (“Runferyerlife”), alto Phil Woods (“Serpent’s Tooth”), clarinetist Buddy DeFranco (“Summer Me, Winter Me”), Chet Baker (“Once Upon a Summertime”), Frank Foster (“Brotherly Shove”) and trumpeter Don Ellis (“Well You Needn’t”). The SWR’s Horst Jankowski (piano) is featured on “Seth Her” and (with alto Bernd Rabe and drummer Hermann Mütschler) “Ahead,” American expatriate Gallardo on Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” Lehn and alto Werner Baumgart on “Stratosphäre.” Just when one assumes that things couldn’t possibly get any better, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval ushers in Disc 2 by brightening the sky above Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia” with more colorful Maynard–style fireworks. He’s followed by tenor Buddy Tate (“Topsy”), trombonist Bobby Burgess (on Ron Simmonds’ great arrangement of “MacArthur Park”), trumpeter Bobby Shew (“Blue”), trombonist Frank Rosolino (“Caravan”), guitarist Barney Kessel (“Oleo”), baritone Tony Scott (“Lush Life”), McConnell again (“Broadway”), Clark Terry (“Mumbles Returns”) and Ferguson again (“Somewhere”) before the band wraps things up with Maria Schneider’s tasteful adaptation of Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You." Besides Reiter ("Pole Position"), the SWR is represented center stage by tenor Jürgen Seefelder and pianist Klaus Wagenleiter (Manny Albam's "Hoo Ray"), drummer Charly Antolini (Rabe's "Shooting Breaks"), trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff ("Just One of Those Things") and trumpeter Don Rader ("If You Could See Me Now"). Having mentioned Albam and Schneider, we should note that the other renowned chartmakers include McConnell, Winding, Mintzer, Woods, Foster, Ellis, Ralph Burns, Slide Hampton, Gordon Brisker, Bill Holman, Jerry van Rooyen, Ernie Wilkins and Don Sebesky - not to mention the SWR's Lehn, Rabe, Jankowski, Gallardo and others. And we mustn't overlook the balance of SWR's stable of thoroughbred improvisers - tenor Matthias Erlewein ("Fred"), trumpeter Karl Farrent, alto Klaus Graf and drummer Wolfgang Haffner ("Runferyerlife"), Farrent and drummer Jörg Gebhardt ("Serpent's Tooth"), tenors Peter Weniger and Andreas Maile ("Brotherly Shove"), Erlewein and Wagenleiter ("Broadway") and pianist Martin Schrack ("It Never Was You"). Playing time on both discs couldn't be better, and sound quality - including those numbers recorded in concert - ranges from admirable to excellent. This is in every respect an anniversary gift to cherish for a lifetime.
Contact:CK Records, Kirchstrasse 1 / 1, 71726 Benningen, Germany (phone 07144 1 28 33; fax 07144 1 20 42; e–mail email@example.com).