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The Persistence of Big Bands

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It's a milieu that still enjoys plenty of devotion, and musicians (especially jazz players) are no strangers to realizing ideas that seem practically impossible.
It's faintly amazing to be able to talk at all about big-band recordings—plural—emerging during an ongoing pandemic with no end in sight. Nonetheless it's a milieu that still enjoys plenty of devotion, and musicians (especially jazz players) are no strangers to realizing ideas that seem practically impossible. Here we have scores of them willing to keep the tradition alive, whatever the difficulties.

Jens Wendelboe
Against All Odds
Losen Records
2021

You'll be disappointed if you're hoping for a brisk swinging Phil Collins cover or two, but the hearty party of Against All Odds still offers plenty to like. While a casual listener could easily believe Jens Wendelboe had simply booked a studio for nineteen players and a vocalist, this is a collage that took months to come together. The rhythm section set down the basic tracks just before 2020's first shutdown, and so there was an organic foundation to follow. The horn players were then able to do their thing in groups of four staggered weeks apart, with various others recording more bits and pieces at home.

Logistics aside, the finished product bounces as brightly as it was always meant to in person. Wendelboe's compositions show as much soul as you'd expect from someone whose R&B pedigree includes Donna Summer and Earth, Wind & Fire. The collective breezes through brisk-paced Latin dance, cheerful march and urban funk jam with equal aplomb. If "Chasing Rainbows" feels out of place because it really belongs in an animated Disney film instead, it's still rendered with the wide-eyed sincerity it deserves. Likewise, this whole hour makes it easy to simply enjoy the results and forget the "odds."

Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge
Within Us
Mama Records
2021

Chuck Owen and his Jazz Surge ensemble were too thrilled about their silver anniversary to let any practical issues get in the way of celebrating, especially since the occasion came at a point when it was becoming safer to (carefully) come together after a long time in isolation. If everyone was especially overjoyed to be playing together for the first time in over a year, Owen's program was perfectly arranged to support them.

There are a couple old staples to mark the milestone, such as Miles Davis' "Milestones" (chosen for just that reason) and a high-spirited opener from Owen's influence and colleague Chick Corea (who would have appeared on the track himself if not for his passing a couple months before the recording). While those are fun additions, though, it's the leader's own pieces that colorfully carry the day.

Corea's jaunty "Chelsea Shuffle" glides right into the quasi-folky "Trail of the Ancients," which evokes sunny mountain paths with breezy strums and silky gypsy fiddle. When Sara Caswell's violin next appears a couple tracks later, it's alongside some juicy electric fusion guitar instead. The arrangements heartily swing and sometimes flat-out sprint with every player in joyous unison, and even the odd spot of club noir doesn't dampen the tone. From bop to funk to folk, the good times never stop rolling.

Théo Girard
Pensées Rotatives
Discobole Records
2021

Perhaps unexpectedly for such a large ensemble, the celebration here is one of the subtle sort—as the title suggests, Theo Girard's music leans to the pensive side, and so this is a band that wanders and glides rather than stomps. This live outing draws on two decades of past material originally developed in many smaller and quieter contexts. Though it took a fair amount of adjusting to arrange it all for more than a dozen horns, Girard and his "rotative" crew of longtime friends keep the attitude of restraint even while livening it up.

This isn't to say that you can't clearly hear the happiness. The mid-set "Interlude" has the collective coalesce out of some free abstraction to eventually wind up in bright street-parade mode. "Roller Coaster" has Girard's trotting bass traipsing up and down while the others take turns jumping in and out of the framework. The rhythm players spend much of the set often seesawing between drift and groove, so the brass section's playful interactions can gradually build up steam to make the livelier moments feel that much more intense when they break out. If Pensées Rotatives would be tricky to dance or tap your toes to, the spirit doesn't feel any less bright because of it.

Tracks and Personnel

Against All Odds

Tracks: After the Snow; Triplet Whisky; Chasing Rainbows; Geriatric Gymnastics; In the Beginning; Decaffeinado Again; Return from Forever; Frank's Funky World #3; A Weekend in Oslo; Erobrern (The Conqueror); Inside Out; Sulla-Tulla.

Personnel: Jens Wendelboe: trombone; Jon Saxon: alto saxophone (lead); Keith Gurland: also saxophone; Ken Nigro: tenor saxophone; Fred Scerbo: tenor saxophone; Jason Polise: baritone saxophone; Per Onnerud: trumpet (lead); Louise Baranger: trumpet; Andrew Willmott: trumpet; Larry Nissman: trumpet; Joe Letizia: trombone (lead); Erick Storckman: trombone; Howard Levy: trombone; Walter Barrett: bass trombone-tuba; Paul Mariconda: keys; Ryan Parrino: guitar; Michael Nunno: bass; Tyger MacNeal: drums; Ken Gioffre: soprano saxophone; Joel A. Martin: keys; Kris Yunker: organ; Stephanie Harrison: vocal (3, 5, 6).

Within Us

Tracks: Chelsea Shuffle; Trail of the Ancients; American Noir; Milestones; Apalachicola; Sparks Fly; The Better Claim; Within Us (An Invincible Summer).

Personnel: Chuck Owen: composer/conductor, arranger, accordion, hammered dulcimer; Frank Greene: trumpet; Jay Coble: trumpet; Mike Iapichino: trumpet; Clay Jenkins: trumpet; Tami Danielsson: alto saxophone; Steve Wilson: saxophone, alto; Rex Wertz: saxophone, tenor; Matt Vance: saxophone, baritone; Keith Oshiro: trombone; Tom Brantley: trombone; Jerald Shynette: trombone; Sara Caswell: violin; Per Danielsson: piano; LaRue Nickerson: guitar; Corey Christiansen: guitar, dobro; Mark Neuenschwander: acoustic bass; Danny Gottlieb: drums; Beth Gottlieb: percussion, djembe (6); Jack Wilkins: tenor sax; Jim Hall: trombone; Warren Wolf: vibraphone, marimba (1, 7).

Pensées Rotatives

Tracks: 1993; The 6th and 7th Parts of the Cake; Interlude; La Traversée du Pont Par le Chameau; Roller Coaster; Tom & Jerry; Waiting for Ethiopia on a Bosphorus Bridge; 1993 (radio edit).

Personnel: Theo Girard: double bass; Sebastian Rochford: drums; Antoine Berjeaut: trumpet; Julien Rousseau: trumpet; Simon Arnaud: trumpet; Jérôme Fouquet: trumpet; Nicolas Souchal: trumpet; Basile Naudet: alto sax; Martin Daguerre: alto sax; Adrien Amey: alto sax; Raphaël Quenehen: alto sax; Théo Nguyen Duc Long: tenor sax; Morgane Carnet: tenor sax; Nicolas Stephan: tenor sax; Sakina Abdou: tenor sax.

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