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Big Band Report

Recalling Another Solemn Occasion

By Published: September 4, 2004
While noting last month the centenary of the birth of the Kid from Red Bank, William "Count" Basie, I overlooked a second milestone, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the passing of another Jazz legend, the renowned bandleader Stanley Newcomb Kenton, who died in Los Angeles on August 25, 1979, age sixty-eight. There's not much one can say about Kenton that hasn't already been said. Although his bands (orchestras, as he called them) were always on the music's cutting edge and his detractors were many, Kenton inspired a depth of loyalty and admiration among his musical colleagues and fans that remains undimmed to this day. The list of his sidemen reads like a Who's Who of Jazz luminaries, and his composers and arrangers were consistently in the forefront when it came to taking big-band composing / arranging in new and exciting directions. Some self-appointed pundits claimed that Kenton's ensembles didn't swing, but I have a large number of albums in my garage which prove emphatically that those who leveled the charge were either biased, musically challenged, or simply didn't know what they were talking about. When Stan chose to turn up the heat, which happened far more often than his adversaries were willing to concede, his orchestras swung as hard as any others one could name. But Stan abhorred standing still, and his restless spirit led to innovations (in fact, that was the name of one of his orchestras) that often outdistanced those who should have listened with open minds but weren't able to change direction and move forward as quickly and as gracefully as he. Time has proven Kenton right, his critics wrong. His vision lives on, as fresh and invigorating as ever, and will continue to electrify lovers of good music for many years to come. That is why we celebrate and remember Stan Kenton's life, and not the lives of those who for whatever reason weren't able to keep pace with his resourcefulness.

Another Hymn to the Orient
More than three years have elapsed since last I commented on the large number of splendid Japanese big bands playing today, and this seems an appropriate time to do so again, as there have been a number of developments since that column appeared in March '01.

First, I must acknowledge that much of my information about the Japanese big-band scene comes from my friend-whom-I've-never-met, Hideo Tateno, a fellow big-band enthusiast who knows what is happening in his country and is eager to share his insights with me. It was from Hideo that I learned of the marvelous Kenichi Tsunoda Big Band, a razor-sharp powerhouse that can stand its ground against any band anywhere. I was introduced to the ensemble via its second album, Savanna (later released in the U.S. on Danny Beher's Sea Breeze label), then heard the band's earlier release, Shuffling Shuffle, and the subsequent Big Swing. Among its strengths are Tsunoda's superlative arrangements of his own material, Jazz standards and themes from the Great American Songbook. I've never heard Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" or Chick Corea's "Spain" or "La Fiesta" played any better than by Tsunoda's ensemble. Equally admirable are the leader's arrangements of "It's All Right with Me," "Body and Soul" and "Work Song" ( Shuffling Shuffle ), "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Caravan," "Manteca" and "My Romance" ( Savanna ), "Old Devil Moon," "A Night in Tunisia," "Waltz for Debbie" and "It Don't Mean a Thing" ( Big Swing ). The band has now released a fourth album, For J.G., which blasts off with a torrid version of Dizzy Gillespie's "Be Bop" and includes impressive arrangements of "My Favorite Things," Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings," Bird's "Donna Lee" and Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train" with the usual complement of engaging originals by Tsunoda. The term world-class may be over-used but is definitely not misplaced here.

Another topnotch Japanese band with a new album is the C.U.G. (Continued in the Underground) Jazz Orchestra whose previous release, C.U.G. Since 1989, was mentioned in that column three years ago. This time around, the seventeen-piece ensemble (which includes two standout American players, saxophonist Mark Taylor and trumpeter Jay Thomas) nails two songs by Kenny Werner, John Coltrane's "Lazy Bird," Herbie Hancock's "Prince of Darkness," a pair of originals by pianist Shuhei Mizuno ("Tempo=230," "Chrysanthemum") and the standards "Autumn in New York," "Everything Happens to Me" and "Star Eyes." The drop in quality between the C.U.G. and Tsunoda ensembles is barely discernible, as is the variance between them and a number of other dynamic Japanese bands that I've had the good fortune to encounter, thanks largely to my well-informed pen-pal, Hideo Following are a number of them that are worth checking out.

T. Kitano and the Arrow Jazz Orchestra, Color of the Moment. This exhilarating album includes suites from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, Corea's "Spain," Bob Florence's "Willowcrest" and his arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne," W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," the standard "The Things We Did Last Summer" and four originals including Kitano's "Color of the Moment."

Toshio Miki's Front Page Orchestra, Harmony of the Soul. Half a dozen originals by tenor saxophonist Miki, three others by alto saxophonist Atsushi Ikeda, marvelously scored and played by a blue-chip ensemble.

The Global Jazz Orchestra, Global Standard. The band's personnel are students at a college in Osaka but you'd never guess that by listening, so ably has director Akira Nonomura sculpted them into a formidable ensemble. A captivating album comprised mostly of originals including Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia" and Cedar Walton's "Firm Roots" with the standards "Hey There" and "I Loves You, Porgy" and a number of eloquent solos by guest alto saxophonist Takashi Furuya.

Norio Maeda & the Wind-Breakers, Live at Theatre Cocoon! Much better than its unintentionally humorous name suggests, this 20th anniversary concert by pianist Maeda and his orchestra is a zestful showcase for a number of spellbinding soloists who weave their magic on a quartet of the leader's originals and more familiar themes including "Beautiful Love," "You're My Everything," "Memories of You," Amapola," "Alone Together," "Golden Earrings," "Smile," "Moon River" and "Have You Met Miss Jones?"

The Monday Night Jazz Orchestra, Starts from M. Another noteworthy album with an unusual premise: every song begins with the letter "m." The band opens brilliantly with "My Favorite Things" and there's no letdown through the finale, pianist Bobby Timmons' Jazz standard, "Moanin'." In between are breathtaking versions of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage," Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," Coltrane's "Moment's Notice," a trio of m-based standards, and two originals by Shinji Okano. First-class all the way, as was the orchestra's previous album, Monument.

The Junko Moriya Orchestra, Shifting Images. Moriya is a superlative pianist / composer / arranger, and her ensemble is in A-1 form on seven of her originals, Duke Ellington's "Cottontail," Thelonious Monk's "Friday the 13th" and "Cavatina," the theme from the film The Deer Hunter. All of the dazzling arrangements are Moriya's, while the orchestra is led by the American conductor Don Sickler, the trumpet section by another ex-pat Yank, Mike Ponella.

Masaru Uchibori and the MU Big Band, Wayne. Another ensemble with no apparent weaknesses, and it's no wonder — Uchibori has brought together a number of Japan's leading players including Moriya (piano), Miki (tenor sax), drummer Yoshinobu Inagaki and trumpeter Eric Miyashiro, each of whom leads or has led his (or her) own big band. Uchibori arranged every number except John LaPorta's "Remember Mingus," and he's right up there with Tsunoda, Kitano, Maeda and Moriya in terms of talent and inspiration. His arrangement of "Just Friends" (featuring the trombone section) is alone worth the price of admission, while his originals "Lullaby for Y.U." and "Traffic Light Blues" are equally persuasive.

Big-band Jazz seems to be alive and well in Japan, and the level of expertise on each of these albums is mind-boggling. The ensembles are not merely good, they are exemplary in every respect, from unison blowing to improvisation and everything in between. The albums may be hard to find but are well worth the effort it may take to track them down. It helps, of course, to have a friend like Hideo. Thanks, amigo, for introducing me to so many wonderful bands from the other side of the world.

Next month's column will be slightly delayed, as I plan to be in Los Angeles at the end of September to enjoy (and report on) the L.A. Jazz Institute's all-star tribute to trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, marking Maynard's half-century as one of the world's foremost Jazz musicians. The four-day event (September 30-October 3), coordinated by impresario Ken Poston, will showcase fourteen big bands in seventeen concerts. Maynard will be there with his present Big Bop Nouveau group along with many of his alumni and friends. I'll let you know how things turn out. Until then, keep swingin'!

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