Like a lot of younger jazz composers who write for large ensembles, I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship to the "bigband tradition." For instance, the piece of Secret Society music that most directly draws on that vocabulary is "Lizard Brain" -- and it is in 13/4, incorporates a lot of highly dissonant, non-functional sonorities, and ends with an extended "fire in the pet store!"-type freakout (thanks to Matt Clohesy for introducing me to that descriptor). These elements coexist -- if not quite peacefully than at least in a state of uneasy détente -- with the more characteristically bigband-y gestures, like interlocking brass vs. saxes riffing and concerted shout choruses.
The thing is, there's an awful lot of bigband music that is important to the history of jazz that doesn't really do a whole lot for me. I'm afraid this would include a shit-ton of music that is beloved by true bigband connoisseurs. For instance, I know this sounds heretical, but most of Count Basie's output after Jo Jones left the group leaves me totally cold. Also, I've never really been able to develop much affection for the various Stan Kenton bands, etc, even when I respect the craftsmanship and inventiveness of some of the writing.
The stuff I like best and respond to viscerally and have invested time in studying in detail really represents only a small corner of the vast bigband universe. The center of this solar system is definitely the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra -- especially the first edition of the group with Richard Davis on bass. This has been my favorite bigband since I was thirteen years old.
Ironically, the impetus for Thad starting his own bigband was Basie rejecting a bunch of his charts. In retrospect, this turned out to be a very good thing -- imagine how that music would have sounded with Basie's circa 1966 rhythm section, instead of Richard Davis and Mel Lewis!
In the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis orbit I would include its precursor, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, as well as its successors: the Mel Lewis Orchestra of the early 1980's featuring Bob Brookmeyer's compositions, today's Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (primarily the Jim McNeely works), and, out in the far reaches of this planetary system, the large ensembles led by former Brookmeyer students Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck. (Maria's "Green Piece" was originally written for the Mel Lewis band, and Hollenbeck not only studied with Brookmeyer but plays drums in Bob's New Art Orchestra.)
Outside of this sphere, the bigband music that resonates the most with me would be the Ellington band's rich and practically inexhaustible recorded history, Gil Evans's various studio projects and his (often-dismissed) groups from the 1970's and 1980's, and the large-ensemble recordings of Charles Mingus, George Russell, and Kenny Wheeler. Also some of Django Bates's stuff for Delightful Precipice and some of Carla Bley's writing for the Liberation Music Orchestra and her own groups. More recently, I dig Guillermo Klein's Los Gauchos, Pedro Giraudo's band, Andrew D'Angelo's (as-yet-unrecorded) bigband music and -- at the risk of getting slightly incestuous -- the large ensemble music of my Pulse colleagues and of Infernal Machines co-producer Sherisse Rogers.
The above is a bit of a delayed response to the discussion of post-1955 bigband recordings that's been going on over at Doug Ramsey's Rifftides. The jumping-off point here was composer and educator Bill Kirchner's list of Recommended Big Band CDs, 1955-Present. It's an interesting and well-considered list, but while it has sparked a fair bit of back-and-forth amongst the Rifftides commentariat -- here, here, and here -- the discussion so far has somewhat predictably but depressingly been oriented far more towards the "1955" end of the spectrum, without much consideration of what's been going on in large-scale jazz composition and performance over the past 30 years or so. This despite the fact that Kirchner's list is admirably balanced and includes many excellent recordings from the 1980's, 1990's, and 2000's.
Anyway, since we haven't done the whole list-making thing in a while, I thought it might be fun to find some additional post-1980 bigband recordings to supplement Bill's list. I'll go first, but feel free to jump in in comments.
• Mel Lewis Orchestra, Make Me Smile (1982) Brookmeyer compositions -- insanely great record, killing band (including a young Joe Lovano). Still a rarity, used vinyl or (long out of print) CD very hard to come by. Unaccountably not on iTunes.• George Russell, The African Game (1983)• Gil Evans Orchestra, Live at Sweet Basil, Vol. 1 (1984) Important document of Gil's somewhat surreal 1980's bigband.• Jim McNeely, East Coast Blow Out (1994) Still my favorite of Jim's stuff.