Last June, DownBeat's Frank Hadley invited me to "please list your FIVE most favorite big band albums; and add comments (of any length) about each album" for a piece he was writing for the magazine. That piece has finally gone to press -- it's in the April issue, you can read it here.
I was far from the only one Frank contacted -- almost 200 players, composers, educators et al responded to this straw poll, and the results are fascinating. You'd have to expect that Miles & Gil's Porgy and Bess would be the odds-on favorite for the top spot, but I really did not expect to see Thad & Mel lock down the #2 (Live at the Village Vanguard) and #3 (Consummation) positions -- especially given the historically spotty availability of those albums. (They are both on iTunes now.)
It's also nice to see Taylor Ho Bynum quoted in the lede, especially since he tipped his hand and shared his top five on his own blog last year. (THB's blog is [temporarily, I hope] inaccessible, but here's the archived version via the wayback machine.) Now that the piece has been published, I thought I'd do the same -- and throw in a few audio clips while I'm at it:
Like all music geeks, I’m attracted to list-making as foolproof discussion-fodder, but when asked to proclaim the “Top Big Band Records of ALL TIME,” I get agita. This kind of framing almost insists that you pick canonical records that have stood the test of time, without even considering what’s going on in the present moment. So I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting the rules to suit my own purposes. I’ve chosen five outstanding big band records released during the past ten years. [N.B. ten years as of the time I originally wrote this, which was June 2009.] If this disturbs you I encourage you to mentally substitute your favorite Undisputed Classics from Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, George Russell, Gerry Mulligan, and Thad Jones. I can assure you, I love their records as much as you do. But here are some recent albums that I think are equally worthy:
Bob Brookmeyer New Art Orchestra — New Works (Challenge, 1999)
In the 1980’s, Bob “wrote himself out of” the Mel Lewis Orchestra in by pushing the limits of density, chromaticism, and wrist-slitting bleakness. (I happen to love that music, though apparently not everyone shared that opinion at the time….) He spent the subsequent years composing for various European big bands, and eventually formed his own hand-picked ensemble. New Works is his first and best record with that group, and it marks a return to transparency, propulsion, and blissful melodicism. The album’s centerpiece is Celebration, a four-part suite written in tribute to Gerry Mulligan, and featuring unbelievably badass playing by guest soloist Scott Robinson. Bob said that in writing this music he had to “step back a few years to stay honest,” but this is no exercise in neoclassical nostalgia — the music gives a quick nod to the big band tradition before plunging straight ahead.
Sam Rivers’ RivBea All-Star Orchestra — Culmination (BMG, 1999)
Sam Rivers grew up during the height of the Big Band Era, and Culmination feels like a playful re-imagining of the music of his youth. Like the Walter Page-Jo Jones edition of the Basie band, this record is heavy on grooves, riffs, and short-’n-sweet solos. Except the grooves are electrified, funky, and often slightly askew, the riffs are thick and prickly, and the soloists include fire-breathers like Steve Coleman — who also produced, and somehow persuaded a major label (remember those?) to put it out.
Maria Schneider Orchestra — Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)
The wispy title track introduces Gary Versace’s accordion and Luciana Souza’s voice as distinctly new colors in Maria’s palette, and the dance suite Three Romances rides the wave of a reinvigorated rhythmic vocabulary. But nothing quite prepares you for the 18-minute flamenco-inspired epic "Bulería, Soleá y Rumba," which has at its heart a devastating slow burn from Donny McCaslin. The climax is brain-splattering.
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble — A Blessing (OmniTone, 2005)
Hollenbeck is one of the most compelling composers on the scene, and this record is the first document of his music for big band. His range is staggering: "Folkmoot" is a propulsive deconstruction of Marian McPartland’s theme music that also (improbably) weaves in minimalism, Jimmy Giuffre-inspired exoticism, and anthemic indie rock. "Weiji" is a portentous, monomaniacal rhythmic blowout followed by a perversely breezy coda. And "Abstinence" slinks along slowly, teasing us with a sensuous bass line and drawn-out, quietly yearning melodic figures, before finally succumbing to temptation. Needless to say, the drumming on this is killing.
Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos — Filtros (Sunnyside, 2008)
Some might not consider this 11-piece outfit a true “big band,” but I see no reason to stop making up my own rules as I go. Besides, while the instrumentation might be slighted pared-down, the compositional ambitions are vast. Recorded immediately following a two-week stand at the Village Vanguard, the band breezes through Guillermo’s multi-metric minefields like they are taking a leisurely stroll. His melodies are so charismatic, you don’t notice the rhythmic slight of hand — until he goes for the big reveal, like the eye-popping time-shifting passages in "Miula" and "Luz de Liz." But lest you think this album is some sterile math-jazz exercise: many of the tunes on Filtros are in fact songs, which Guillermo sings simply and directly. Even his adaptations of Messiaen and Ligeti feel unaffected. This is beautiful, heartfelt music, whose complexity arises naturally out of the composer’s highly developed sense of flow.
Some thoughts looking back on this list, ten months after I wrote it...
I was certainly inspired by the comments thread attached to this post, and did my best to track down and listen (or re-listen, if it had been a while) to anything anyone recommended that had been released in the past ten years.
It did not take a lot of foresight on my part to predict that recent recordings would be under-represented in this DownBeat piece -- the only album from the past ten years to appear in the Top 25 is Maria's Concert in the Garden.
One recent recording I did not hear in time to include is Django Bates' stunning 2008 release Spring Is Here (Shall We Dance?), which would otherwise easily have made the list. Honorable mentions would have to include large ensemble records by Jim McNeely (who made some fantastic recordings with the Vanguard Orchestra, the Swiss Jazz Orchestra, and the Danish Radio Big Band), Bill Dixon, Peter Apfelbaum & The New York Hieroglyphics, the Pedro Giraudo Jazz Orchestra, Rob Mosher's Storytime, the Delphian Jazz Orchestra, the Exploding Star Orchestra, and no doubt a whole slew of artists whose work I haven't heard yet.
I deliberately excluded from consideration albums by my Pulse colleagues Joe Phillips, JC Sanford, and Jamie Begian (it felt a bit incestuous to include them) but you should know that they all put out very fine large ensemble records last year.
Comments are welcome, as always. If you had to pick your five favorite bigband records ("large ensemble," whatever -- let's say anything with more than 10 players involved) from the past decade, what would you choose?