Strike Up the (Unsung) Bands
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 Lehn Big 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 King, 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).