Strike Up the (Unsung) Bands
The big band era is known for producing a number of enormously successful ensembles whose leaders were household names: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Fletcher Henderson, then on through Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the brothers Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and, later, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, among others. As everyone knows, big bands have by and large faded into the sunset, and with them the names that once guaranteed their popularity and good fortune.
Even so, thanks in part to the many university jazz studies programs and armed services groups, there are perhaps as many or more big bands active today than ever before, including that long-ago epoch when big bands were at or near the top of the musical ladder. What they no longer have is name recognitionsave for the ghost bands such as Basie, Miller, Dorsey, Shaw and Herman who continue to plug away, carrying the torch for big-band jazz as far and as wide as the economic climate allowsor an audience, as dancing and/or listening to their music has become passe in this age of rock, heavy metal, rap, hip hop and assorted other fads du jour.
Without a name or audience, the question becomes: what's left? And the answer, thank goodness, is a large number of "unknown" big bands whose music is every bit as impressive and rewarding as that of their illustrious and universally celebrated predecessors. To hear them is to believe. With that in mind, I'd like to take this year-end opportunity to introduce you to twenty-two such bands, personal favorites among a long list of seasoned ensembles whose spirit and artistry prove that big-band jazz remains very much alive.
1. Rob Parton's JazzTech Big Band. To me, one of the finest bands the Chicago area has ever produced, and that covers a lot of territory. Not only is Parton a marvelous trumpeter, both lead and jazz, but he has always surrounded himself with the best musicians Chicago has to offerstalwarts such as trumpeters Scott Wagstaff and Art Davis, tenor Mark Colby, lead alto Bob Frankich, drummer Bob Rummage, trombonist Tom Garling, bass trombonist/arranger Tom Matta, pianist Don Stille and so many more. Sadly, Rob has dispersed the group after more than twenty years at the helm but has left a recorded legacy that would be hard to surpass. The band recorded seven CDs, all of which are superb, especially the two most recentTwo Different Days and Eleventh Hour Live. The others are Just One of Those Things, Fascinatin' Rhythm, What Are We Here For, The Count Is In! and JazzTech Big Band, the last with guest trumpeter Conte Candoli. All save Fascinatin' Rhythm are on Sea Breeze Records. The JazzTech Big Band will be sorely missed.
2. The Ed Vezinho/Jim Ward Big Band. Comprised for the most part of musicians working the casinos in the Atlantic City area, NJ, the V-WBB is not only well-built from stem to stern but boasts one of the most electrifying trumpet sections I've heard in any band anywhere. Ward is simply a monstrous lead trumpeter, and split lead Joe Scannella is only a short step behind. Vezinho, besides playing alto sax, is a terrific arranger, and the band's three CDs are awesome, starting with Smile and including Blue Haired Mama and With Friends Like These.... The V-WBB has a number of captivating soloists, especially baritone saxophonist Stan Weiss who brings to mind the late great Jack Nimitz. A wonderful ensemble.
3. The Mike Barone Big Band. A no-brainer, thanks to Barone's superlative charts and a supporting cast made up of some of Southern California's most talented and sought-after sidemen. Besides writing brilliantly, Barone always has a surprise or two for the listener, delving deeply into the pages of the Great American Songbook to unearth and renovate such seldom-heard gems as "My Melancholy Baby," "Has Anybody Seen My Gal," "I Won't Dance," "Darktown Strutters Ball," "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," "Put Your Arms Around Me, Honey" and "Avalon." Not to mention the title selection from the band's most recent album, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's skittish "Flight of the Bumblebee." Barone's band has recorded half a dozen CDs including twoLive at Donte's 1968 and Class of '68taped during live sessions at Donte's in Hollywood those many years ago. The more recent albums are Bumblebee, Live 2005!, Metropole and By Request, and each one is a killer.