While large ensembles reached their heyday in the '40s, there are many still recording today, even if their ability to tour widely is limited.
Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
Live at MCG
Of all the current big bands playing both bop and swing, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra is easily among the very best. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2005, the band recorded this live CD at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild during an extended booking in 2004. The core groupbrothers John and Jeff Clayton (bass and reeds, respectively) and drummer Jeff Hamiltonmakes sure the solo spotlight is distributed widely.
Bassist John Clayton's arrangements make old chestnuts like Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia by giving it a driving setting for tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard's solo, with plenty of shout choruses by the ensemble: Clayton's moving arco bass is the centerpiece of "Nature Boy. Nowhere is Clayton's ensemble writing as effective as in Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo, building upon the already melancholy mood of the piece. The arranger's playful side comes across with his quirky introduction and writing for the brass section in a brisk setting of Thelonious Monk's "Evidence, which showcases fine solos by guitarist Randy Napoleon and trumpeters Gilbert Castellanos, Sal Cracchiolo, Clay Jenkins and Bijon Watson. Clayton's boisterous "Silver Celebration is a snappy hard bop salute to Horace Silver. Beautifully recorded with an attentive audience, this big band date is warmly recommended.
Michael Pagán Big Band
Athough Michael Pagán has recorded several CDs, this was my introduction to this pianist/arranger/composer. He falls into the modern mainstream, an imaginative writer who spreads around the solos among his band, taking very few for himself. "Essential Trivia is a post-bop chart full of surprising twists, featuring a strong solo by baritone saxophonist Clare Church. The humorous "Waltz For a Bad Hair Day was commissioned for a high school jazz ensemble; the band has a lot of fun with its widely contrasting sections. Trumpeter Brad Goode and euphonium player Tom Ball are the center of attention in the powerful "More Than a Friend, which initially sounds like a requiem then shifts its focus into a samba setting with Goode utilizing a mute. The one standard of the session is a straight-ahead treatment of the lush, melancholy ballad "Never Let Me Go, featuring Tom Myer's emotional tenor sax and the leader. All in all, this is an excellent outing.
Bill Warfield Big Band
A Faceless Place
Another name that's new to me is Bill Warfield. There's nothing run-of-the-mill about the trumpeter's big band CD A Faceless Place. His tense cooker "Mad Dag 245 is a fascinating tribute to Miles Davis that was partially inspired by musicians outside of jazz who influenced the late trumpeter. "Variations on a Theme by Frank Poulenc is an unusual blend of the Frenchman's "Aubade with the chord changes to Davis' "ESP and a bridge composed by Warfield.
But there are uneven tracks as well. "Jazzman is centered around a poem recited by Empress Nzingha (written as she heard them during a live date) as the band improvises, adding an overdubbed orchestration later; unfortunately, this long piece quickly grows tiresome. Joe Zawinul's "Pharoah's Dance (written for Davis' Bitches Brew) also runs out of steam long before its conclusion, though the solos by guitarist Vic Juris, baritone saxophonist Sam Bortka and the leader merit praise. Overall, this is a rewarding, if not quite essential, big band release.
Tracks and Personnel
Live at MCG
Tracks: Georgia; Jody Grind; Nature Boy; Lullaby of the Leaves; Silver Celebration; Captain Bill; Mood Indigo; Evidence; Like a Lover; Eternal Triangle; Squatty Roo.
Personnel: John Clayton: conductor, arranger, bass; Jeff Clayton: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto flute, flute; Jeff Hamilton: drums; Keith Fiddmont: alto saxophone, clarinet; Rickey Woodard: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Charles Owens: tenor saxophone; Lee Callet: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Bijon Watson, Sal Cracchiolo, Eugene "Snooky" Young, Clay Jenkins, Gilbert Castellanos: trumpet; Ira Nepus, George Bohanon, Ryan Porter: trombone; Maurice Spears: bass trombone; Tamir Hendelman: piano; Randy Napoleon: guitar; Christoph Luty: bass.
Tracks: Essential Trivia; Lyric Interlude; Pag's Groove; Waltz For A Bad Hair Day; Never Let Me Go; Crazy Man's Game; More Than A Friend; We're Almost There.
Personnel: Pete Lewis: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone (7), flute (2, 4); Kurtis Adams: alto saxophone, flute (2, 4); Tom Myer: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone (4); Eric McGregor: tenor saxophone; Clare Church: baritone saxophone; Pete Olstad: trumpet; Brad Goode: trumpet (lead on 3); Garner Pruitt: trumpet; Al Hood: trumpet; Greg Gisbert: trumpet (7, lead on 4); Darren Kramer: trombone; John Hines: trombone (lead on 5, 8); Tom Ball: trombone (4, 5), euphonium (2, 7); Kevin Buchanan: trombone (1-3,6-8); Matt Plummer: bass trombone; Michael Pagán: piano; Bijoux Barbarosa: bass; Dave Rohlf: drums; Bill Kopper: guitar (2,4-8); Greg Harris: vibraphone (1, 3).
A Faceless Place
Tracks: Mad Dog; The Three Marias; Jazzman; Spanish Key; Variations On A Theme By Frank Poulenc; Pharaoh's Dance.