Any discussion of a jazz figure's importance must include an analysis of the breadth of his or her talents. No one doubts trumpeter Louis Armstrong's stature in the origins of Dixieland. But attempts to place Jelly Roll Morton next to him in the pantheon of the genre often meet with resistance. Yet, in addition to being an outstanding performing virtuoso as, of course, Armstrong was, Morton was a premier arranger. This huge talent has too often been downplayed by jazz historians.
It takes special musical prescience to acknowledge and analyze the genius of arrangers and New York jazz audiences are fortunate to have Justin DiCioccio and the Manhattan School of Music Jazz Orchestra take up the gauntlet. Their latest triumph came last week at Dizzy's when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1961 film West Side Story , by performing notable jazz arrangements of Leonard Bernstein's legendary score.
In order to facilitate proper rendering of the stellar arrangements selected for the evening, the MSM orchestra expanded itself to 23 players by adding a choir of four French horns. The result resonated vibrantly through the room and held the audience spellbound.
DiCioccio selected the work of a proverbial who's who in the world of jazz arrangers. Included in the list were Don Sebesky, Dave Grusin, Johnny Richards, Michael Abene, Tom Scott, Michael Philip Mossman and Bill Reddie. Grusin, Abene and Sebesky's arrangements were originally written for an all-star jazz recording that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Broadway show. Johnny Richards' writing came from an album for the Stan Kenton orchestra released the same year as the movie. Bill Reddie's chart, "West Side Story Suite," was written for Buddy Rich's Swinging New Big Band (Blue Note, 1966), which had particular significance for me because I was producing many Kenton and Rich concerts in those days and heard the aforementioned charts often. I have not heard them since.
The charts naturally contain large spaces for improvised solos and the youngsters in the MSM orchestra did their forbears proud. DiCioccio's conducting was, as usual, right on the money but perhaps more importantly, his commentary buttressed the performance with insightful anecdotes about the unsung heroes of the eveningthe arrangers.
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