Strike Up the (Unsung) Bands
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.
4. The SWR Big Band. The first band on the list from overseas is also one of the most persuasive and prolific, having recorded more than 15 albums with guest artists from the U.S. as well as others on its own. The band is more than 60 years old, having been organized shortly after World War II as the Erwin LehnBig Band. Lehn remained its director for 40 years, after which Lehn's band became the SWR (which means something like "Southwest Radio," reflecting its sponsorship). Since then, the band has produced a wealth of topnotch concert recordings in its Jazz Matinee series with guests Toshiko Akiyoshi, Don Menza, Frank Foster, Sammy Nestico, Rob McConnell, Bob Florence, Bill Holman, Slide Hampton, Phil Woods, Bob Mintzer, Clark Terry and others, while the earlier band released a wonderful two-disc set, 40 Jahre Jazz, celebrating Lehn's tenure as its leader. While Lehn's groundbreaking band was clearly in a class by itself, the present day SWR Big Band is even more proficient, which is saying a lot.
5. The Kenichi Tsunoda Big Band. In Japan, the gold standard among a number of world-class bands. Not only is trombonist Tsunoda a superlative arranger, he has enlisted the cream of Tokyo's sidemen to shape an ensemble that has no apparent weaknesses, at least on record. There are half a dozen first-class CDs from which to choose, two of whichSavanna, Big Swinghave been reissued by Sea Breeze Records. The others are Shuffling Shuffle, For J.G., Jumping Big and Big Band Stage. While all the albums are good, the earlier threeShuffle, Savanna, Big Swingare the cream of the crop.
6. The Tom Kubis Big Band. Anyone who has played or heard Kubis' charts knows what a wizard he is. A number of his arrangements have been performed by ensembles all over the world, from professional to student to amateur, and for good reason. Kubis hasn't recorded often, but his first CDSlightly Off the Groundis a masterpiece, one that no respectable desert island should be without. The album is a series of highlights, from "Purple Porpoise Parkway" (a.k.a. "Green Dolphin Street) and "Exactly Like This" to "Samba Dees Godda Do It," "When You're Smiling" and "Alexander's Big Time Band," with terrific guest shots by trombonist Bill Watrous, saxophonist Matt Catingub and trumpeter / all round funnyman Jack Sheldon who sharply lampoons the film Casablanca on "Play It Again, Sam." Two of Kubis' CDsFast Cars and Fascinating Women, Keep Swingin'are devoted to the music of Steve Allen; another, At Last, includes guest appearances by Sheldon, vocalist Leslie Lewis and trombonist Conrad Janis. Kubis has also recorded three Christmas albumsYou Just Can't Have Enough Christmas!, It's Not Just for Christmas Anymore! and A Jazz Musician's Christmas, which is by and large a fusion of the first two.
7. The Gary Urwin Big Band. Urwin, a lawyer by day and big band partisan by night, convenes his all-star ensemble only to record. To date that has happened on three occasions (a fourth album is in the planning stages), each time with marvelous results. The CDs, moving backward in chronological order, are Kindred Spirits, Living in the Moment and Perspectives. With heavy hitters like trumpeters Wayne Bergeron, Bobby Shew and Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom, trombonists Bill Watrous, Andy Martin, Charlie Loper and Alex Iles, tenor Pete Christlieb, baritone Bob Efford, altos Rusty Higgins and Kim Richmond, pianists Christian Jacob and Brian O'Rourke, bassist Trey Henry and drummer Ralph Razze in the starting lineup, one may rest assured that Urwin's squad has enough firepower to blow almost any competitors out of the ballpark.
8. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra. The BJO has a number of formidable weapons, chief among them leader/alto saxophonist Frank Vaganee and composer/arranger/trumpeter Bert Joris. Even though not well-known in the States, the orchestra is without question one of Europe's finest ensembles. The BJO has recorded often, and I have nine of its CDs in the library including a couple of two-disc setsThe Music of Bert Joris and The Music of Michel Herr. Each is a gem, as are the others: Radio 3, Naked in the Cosmos (the music of Kenny Werner), The September Sessions, Dangerous Liaison (compositions by Joris with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra), Meeting Colours (featuring guitarist Philip Catherine), Countermove (compositions and arrangements by Vaganee) and Ten Years Ago (showcasing the marvelous accordionist Richard Galliano).
9. No Name Horses. Another straight-ahead, swinging, American-style big band from Tokyo, this one led by the splendid pianist Makoto Ozone, featuring the marvelous lead trumpeter/soloist Eric Miyashiro and boasting a dynamic supporting cast. Only two CDs to dateNo Name Horses, No Name Horses IIbut each one's a corker. Needless to say, we hope these "horses" haven't run their last race.
10. The Ian Pearce Big Band. Away to Great Britain for perhaps one of the least-known but no less persuasive among our 20 bands. Pearce, who plays piano, composes and arranges, has recruited heavily from the unrivaled National Youth Jazz Orchestra, never a bad idea, and the ranks are peppered with names recognizable as NYJO alumniAndy Cuss, Mark Armstrong, Martin Shaw, Winston Rollins, Adrian Hallowell, Sammy Mayne, Adrian Revell, Ben Castle, Chris Dagley, Andy Wood, Henry Collins, Martin Gladdish, Jamie Talbot and others I'm sure I've overlooked. Even though the band has been a working unit for almost three decades, I've heard only three of its CDs (there may or may not be others). The first, Retrospection, is well above average. The two most recent, Prelude to the Blues and Dedication, are superior, readily assuring the IPBB's inclusion on the list.
11. The Brian Pastor Big Band. We go to Philadelphia for one of the newer bands on the roster, formed in 1994 by trombonist Pastor. The band has recorded only one CD, Common Men, but it was No. 1 on my top ten list in 2006, and for good reason. The band is flat-out terrific, as are the charts by Pastor, Andrew Neu, Jeff Darrohn, Paul Morris, Kaj Hansen and Chuck Gottesman Pastor's arrangement of the Gershwin brothers' "A Foggy Day" is a classic, and the others don't lag far behind. A solid No. 11 choice.
12. The Boulevard Big Band. Even though the Boulevard Big Band has dropped the words "Kansas City" from its name, it remains one of the leading ensembles in America's heartland. Ably led by trumpeter Mike McGraw, the BBB has recorded at least four CDs, the first two with "Kansas City" preceding "Boulevard." The most recent, Live at Harlings Upstairs, is enhanced by the presence of West Coast tenor titan Pete Christlieb. Preceding it are Take Only for Pain, Stellar (featuring alto/tenor saxophonist Eric Marienthal) and an untitled debut from 1994.
13. Junko Moriya Orchestra. Junko Moriya, a younger version of composer/arranger/pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, has recorded two big-band CDs to date: Shifting Images and Points of Departure, each of which places her in the front ranks of contemporary leaders, regardless of what country one is considering. There's one "ringer" on Images, lead trumpeter Mike Ponella, who is replaced on Departure by Eric Miyashiro. No matter, as the band is clicking on all cylinders on both albums. A strong choice for the No. 13 spot.
14. The Jack Cortner Big Band. Arranger Jack Cortner assembled his New York City-based big band in 2005 for recording purposes only, and has done so twice: in 2006 (Fast Track) and 2009 (Sound Check). The original intent, he says, was to release only one album, but he was "talked into" recording a second time by members of the band. We hope he can be persuaded to return to the studio again, as Fast Track and Sound Check are exemplary, thanks in part to the imposing presence of Cortner's longtime friend, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, who is showcased throughout (on Sound Check, Stamm solos on every number). Add pianist Bill Mays to the mix and you've got a sure-fire winner.
15. Kluvers Big Band. Denmark, heretofore best known abroad for Shakespeare's Hamlet and other melancholy themes, has a sunny side as well, as illustrated by Jens Kluver's sharp and high-spirited ensemble. Fortunately, Kluver has recorded often, and we have half a dozen of the band's notable albums in the library. They include Tribute to Duke, The Heat's On, Silver Street, Other People Other Plans, Reflections and Hot House. As Kluver enjoys hosting guest artists, Duke features American alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, The Heat's On tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo and composer/violinist Finn Ziegler, Silver Street tenor Bob Rockwell and organist Kjeld Lauritsen, Other People composer/tenor saxophonist Hans Ulrik, Reflections composer/arranger/pianist Matt Harris, Hot House tenor Thilo and American drummer Dennis Mackrel.
16. Phil Kelly and the Northwest Prevailing Winds. Kelly actually has two bands and three CDS to date, the first and last by the Prevailing Winds, the second by his southern California-based Southwest Santa Ana Winds. In either case, the albums are superb: Convergence Zone and Ballet of the Bouncing Beagles from the north, My Museum from the south. When Kelly's ensemble needs more gas in the tank, he knows who to showcase: tenor Pete Christlieb, trombonist Andy Martin, baritonesGary Smulyan and Bill Ramsay, pianist Pat Coil and trumpeter Jay Thomas on Convergence Zone, Christlieb, Martin, Ramsay, Thomas, pianist Bill Cunliffe, alto Lanny Morgan, trumpeter Bob Summers and guitarist Grant Geissman on Museum, Christlieb, Thomas, Ramsay, Coil, Geissman, alto Jerry Dodgion and drummer Gary Hobbs on Bouncing Beagles. They're excellent, but it is Kelly's high-octane charts that drive the engine forward.
17. Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band. When it comes to appraising Goodwin's gregarious ensemble, opinions are sharply divided. Some believe his fun-loving approach is charming, while others assert that his emphasis on showmanship is excessive. Obviously, I'm in the former camp, which means that Goodwin's four likable CDs to date are more than enough to earn the BPB's inclusion on the list. They are (in chronological order, first to most recent) Swingin' for the Fences, XXL, The Phat Pack and Act Your Age. Guest artists have included clarinetist Eddie Daniels, saxophonists Michael Brecker and David Sanborn, singers Johnny Mathis, Patti Austin and Dianne Reeves, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pianist Chick Corea and the vocal group Take 6.
18. The Rodger Fox Big Band. Yes, big-band jazz is alive in New Zealand, and that country's leading ensemble is overseen by ace trombonist Rodger Fox. The band is so unknown in the States that during an appearance some years ago at an IAJE convention, Fox and Co. played to an almost empty room. A pity, as the band was cookin,' as it is on a number of handsome CDs starting with Good News and including Xtra Juicy, Ain't That the Truth, A Rare Connection, No Exit and Warriors. American trumpeter Jon Papenbrook is the guest on Truth and No Exit, pianist Bill Cunliffeon Connection and Warriors.
19. Danny DImperio's Big Band Bloviation. Not only is drummer Danny D'Imperio's band obscure, its two CDs to date are almost impossible to findbut for those who don't give up easily, well worth the search. This truly is an all-star band, from the trumpet section (Dave Stahl, Greg Gisbert, Joe Magnarelli, Dennis Dotson) to the woodwinds (Eric Alexander, Gary Pribek, Lew Tabackin, Gary Smulyan), trombones (John Mosca, Bruce Eidem) and rhythm (D'Imperio, pianists Barry Harris and Sacha Perry, guitarist Peter Bernstein). The CDs are Big Band Bloviation, Volumes 1 and 2. Hear them if you can. There are engaging tunes ("Sweet Georgia Upside Down," "Fox Hunt," "Ceora," "Yardbird Suite," "Danny Boy," "Good Bait," "Del Sasser," "Daahoud" and others), superb charts, and best of all, sizzling solos by Alexander, Harris, Pribek, Bernstein, Smulyan, Tabackin, Perry and all the trumpets (especially on the mercurial "Fox Hunt" and Willie Maiden's "Three More Foxes").
20. The Pete Cater Big Band. Pete Cater is one of Great Britain's finest big band drummers, and his excellent ensemblealso well-stocked with ex-NYJO personnelhas recorded three topnotch albums: Upswing!, Playing with Fire and The Right Time. Unsung yet easily proficient enough to earn a spot on anyone's list.
21. Sandviken Big Band. We can't overlook Sweden, home to a number of world class ensembles. One of the best is the Sandviken Big Band, which has recorded with a pair of marvelous trumpeters, Bobby Shewand Lasse Lindgren, as well as with renowned clarinetist Antti Sarpila, among others. The four CDs I have are Big Band Wulf, Twenty-Five Years Later (with Sarpila), Right on Time (Lindgren) and 30 Years in Business (featuring Shew and organist Kjell Ohman). While all are good, Business is the pick of the litter.
22. The Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra. Now that Rob McConnell's peerless Boss Brass are no longer active, fellow valve trombonist Dave McMurdo heads Canada's most seasoned and steady ensemble. The DMJO has recorded several multiple-disc sets, most recently the double-CD Nimmons 'n' More in 2007. Two years earlier, the band released a three-CD set, Portraits, also devoted to the music of composer/arranger/clarinetist Phil Nimmons. Two other two-CD sets (Just for Now, Fire & Song complement a trio of singles, The Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Montreal Bistro and Different Paths. The personnel (including several Boss Brass members or alumni) is topflight, the music enticing, and, come to think of it, the DMJO probably deserves a higher ranking than No. 20. Maybe next time...
And there you have it, twenty big bands that may be even more unseen and undervalued than most bands these days but are nonetheless worthy of notice and consideration. As these are all professional groups, we are appending as a "bonus" the names of fifteen impressive university/youth ensembles that deserve no less than honorable mention.
1. National Youth Jazz Orchestra, UK (I have twenty CDs by this consistently amazing ensemble whose upper age limit is 25); 2. DePaul University, Chicago; 3. McGill University, Montreal; 4. University of North Texas, Denton (pick a band, any band); 5. University of Cincinnati; 6. University of Northern Iowa; 7. Midland Youth Jazz Orchestra, UK; 8. University of North Florida, Jacksonville; 9. Mt. Hood (OR) Jazz Ensemble; 10. Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, UK; 11. Texas Christian University; 12. University of Northern Colorado; 13. University of Wisconsin/Eau Claire; 14. Howard University, Washington, DC; 15. University of Toronto. One can't go wrong with any of them.
Bobby Shew Honored
On Saturday, November 21, 2009 I was at the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque to witness trumpeter Bobby Shew's induction into the New Mexico Music Hall of Fame. Until a few weeks before that, when I received an invitation from Shew, I had no idea that such an organization existednor did he. Apparently, the Hall, one of New Mexico's best-kept secrets, has established a foundation and museum in nearby Rio Rancho. This was the seventh annual event, and Shew, a native of Albuquerque, was one of four inductees: three individuals and one group. The others were pop or Latin artists.
Bobby Shew was something of a child prodigy, having started playing guitar at age eight before switching to the trumpet two years later. By age 13 he was playing dances and other events around town, and by 15 was leading his own group, playing as many as six nights a week while in high school. After graduation, Shew spent three years playing lead and jazz trumpet for the NORAD multi-service band, then joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra where he played alongside trumpet legend Charlie Shavers. He later accepted an offer to join Woody Herman = 7596's Herd, which led to gigs with singer Della Reese and drummer Buddy Rich's outstanding late 1960s band. Afterward, Shew moved to Las Vegas, backing headline performers in nightclubs, then to Los Angeles where he played with a host of renowned artists including Art Pepper, Bud Shank and Horace Silver, and in big bands led by Bill Holman, Louie Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Oliver Nelson, Bill Berry, Benny Goodman, Terry Gibbs, Maynard Ferguson, Don Menza, Neal Hefti, Bob Florence and the Frank Capp/Nat Pierce Juggernaut. He also led his own smaller groups, and in 1983 his album Heavy Company earned a Grammy Award as Best Jazz Album of the Year.
A busy studio musician, Shew's trumpet has been heard on such popular TV shows as Hawaii 5-0, Streets of San Francisco, the Bob Newhart Show, Mary Tyler Moore, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Eight Is Enough and many others, as well as in such films as Grease I and II, Rocky I and II, The Muppet Movie, The Drivers and Taxi. In his "spare time," Shew conducts clinics and master classes all over the world, teaches students one-on-one, writes educational articles in various trade magazines, and serves on the Board of Directors of the International Trumpet Guild. Enough, one would surmise, to warrant his entry into the New Mexico Music Hall of Fame. Oh, and I almost forgot...since returning "home" from California in 2006, Shew has served as director of the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra. And just think, as a young man he really wanted to be an architect!
The LAJI Is Moving
News has been received from Ken Poston that the Los Angeles Jazz Institute must vacate its current headquarters at Cal State University, Long Beach by the end of 2009. The good news is that the LAJI may have another home by then; the bad news is that it will cost around $20,000 to pack and move the archives. Poston has hurriedly put together a fund-raiser for the LAJI, to be held Sunday, December 13, at the Airport Marriott Hotel, 5855 W. Century Blvd. The all-day event will include raffles, silent auctions, door prizes, CD vendors and more. For the "more," Poston has called on some of his friends in the Los Angeles jazz community, most of whom have agreed to perform. There will be continuous music from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. featuring (in part) the Bill Holman Band, Carl Saunders' BeBop Big Band, The Cannonball/Coltrane Project, Tall and Small (tenor Pete Christlieb and trombonist Linda Small), the Steve Huffsteter Big Band, the Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra featuring Bill Watrous, the Kim Richmond Concert Jazz Orchestra, the Med Flory Big Band featuring SuperSax, Fred Laurence Selden playing Art Pepper +11, the Ron Levy's Wild Kingdom Big Band, the Dave Pell/Med Flory Quintet, the Chuck Flores Octet, singers Pinky Winters and Dewey Erney, the Gerry Gibbs Quartet, plus Ron Eschete, Kurt Reichenbach, Frank Capp, Bob Summers and Ron Stout. How's that for a roster? It rivals what can be seen and heard and many of the LAJI's semi-annual concerts, and those are planned months in advance! The cost is quite reasonable, with two "donation levels"one giving full access to all venues, the other (pricier) option giving priority seating and a full buffet dinner. To reserve a space, phone 562-985-7065. And even if you are unable to be there, the LAJI can still use your help and support. For reservations at the Marriott, phone 800-228-9290; there's a special room rate for those attending the fund-raiser.
On the Horizon
Speaking of the LAJI, don't forget the Spring 2010 Jazz Festival May 27-30, also at the Sheraton LAX Four Points. Performers there will include the Gerry MulliganConcert Jazz Band and Sextet, Johnny Mandel, the Teddy Charles Tentet, Hal McKusick's Jazz Workshop, the Gil Evans Big Band, Terry Gibbs playing the music of Tiny Kahn, a tribute to Stan Getz by Don Menza, Bob Brookmeyer, the Elliot Lawrence Big Band, a tribute to Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and the music of Quincy Jones, Manny Albam, Johnny Carisi and Alec Wilder (with more to come). For information, call the number given above.
The annual Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, to be held next February 19-21, 2010 at the Hilton Hotel in Rockville, MD, will feature Mulgrew Miller, Bobby Watson, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash and a contingent of local musicians. For information, contact Matt Merewitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone 215-629-6155.
Savannah, GA, has its own Music Festival, to be held March 31 - April 2, 2010. A highlight of the event is a Swing Central Jazz Band competition and workshop among a dozen invited high school bands from seven states (Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington). Led by pianist/educator/composer Marcus Roberts, the clinicians of Swing Central include Jeff Clayton, Wycliffe Gordon, Jim Ketch, Marcus Printup, John Clayton, Gerald Clayton, Jason Marsalis, Dave Stryker, Roland Guerin, Ted Nash, Obed Calvaire, Terell Stafford, Leon Anderson, Chris Crenshaw, Rodney Jordan, Bill Peterson and Jack Wilkins. Students work with these jazz artists for three days, perform in showcases along Savannah's River Street, play in competition rounds, and observe a number of SMF performances by other groups. During competition rounds, which are free to the public, each band plays three pre-selected numbers: "Moten Swing," "Stolen Moments" and "Black Bottom Stomp." The top three bands receive prizes of $5,000 for first, $2,500 for second and $1,000 for third place. For information about the festival, contact Ryan McMaken (email@example.com) or phone 912-234-3378, ext. 104.
The Monterey Jazz Festival is accepting applications from student big bands, combos, vocal ensembles, composers and individual musicians for the 6th annual Next Generation Festival, set for April 9-11, 2010 at the Monterey Conference Center. The festival's Jazz Competition is open to middle school, high school and college-level groups and musicians including vocalists. These young performers will compete for performance opportunities at the 53rd annual Monterey Jazz Festival, September 17-19, 2010. Auditions will be held for the MJF's Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, which will tour jazz venues and festivals throughout North America, leading to a featured spot at the MJF's Sunday afternoon concert on Arena/Lyons Stage. Schools and students who would like to take part in the Next Generation competition should visit www.montereyjazzfestival.org for instructions on how to apply.
And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin...'!