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31 March 2009


Bg Porter

, 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.

Interesting -- 'City of Glass' came up here on shuffle mode yesterday, and I was wondering specifically if/how Graettinger's work with Kenton was on your radar...


I certainly respect the scope and ambition and sheer ballsiness of Graettinger's City of Glass but it's also music that is more "interesting" than satisfying. It's a classic example of the essential "Third Stream" paradox Ethan alluded to here -- "how do you fit real, grooving drumming into the context of harmonically advanced and rhythmically disjunct modern classical music? " Graettinger only even tries to do this in the second movement, and the results are, well... "stilted" would be putting it charitably.

I don't blame Shelly Manne here -- he is as hard-grooving as any drummer in jazz (Way Out West is unassailable) -- but the writing really doesn't give him much to sink his teeth into rhythmically.

Chris Becker

Christopher Jentsch. Miami Suite and Brooklyn Suite. http://www.chrisjentsch.com/music.html

Forgive me if these are already on "Bill's List":

Kenny Wheeler - Music for Large and Small Ensembles

And back in the late 80's the New York Composers orchestra recorded at least two incredible albums of "big band" music by composers as diverse as Anthony Braxton, Robin Holcomb, Lenny Pickett, Elliot Sharp, etc. I'm not sure if those CDs are out of print - but they are very much worth tracking down.



Yes, the Kenny Wheeler record is on Bill's list. (C'mon, was it that hard to click through?)

Anyway, thanks for the heads-up about the New York Composers Orchestra. I wasn't aware of these recordings, but some quick Googling reveals that they're available from New World Records -- both the self-titled one and First Program in Standard Time. The band was co-led by Wayne Horvitz and Robin Holcomb. I'll definitely be checking those out.

Chris Becker

I have First Program in Standard Time. You are in for a treat!



I think there is some value in studying the Basie Orchestra and I'll tell you why: In the recording with Sinatra at the Sands, the Basie band hits some line that is very hard to define, yet clearly the lands just beyond that line are somehow "over the top" and lead us directly to modern Vegas sounds like Celine Dion. I can't put my finger on what it is, maybe other better minds can, but something max's out on that Sands recording and defines the boundary line between Big Band and something else, maybe 'Schmaltz', I don't know.

Does anyone else feel this way about Basie? Can anyone articulate it a bit better? I mean, there's something there, something really really powerful, but its never been duplicated quite that way by anyone, not even Basie.


There is definitely value in studying the (post-Jo Jones) Count Basie Orchestra! Certainly Thad and Billy Byers and Frank Foster and co. wrote some outstanding music for that group.

(As an aside, I have to say that I find it slightly curious that the two most-frequently recommended post-WWII Basie records are the ones with charts by Neal Hefti and Sammy Nestico. They are not bad records by any means, but still... I was glad to see Bill push back against the conventional wisdom with the selections he chose.)

It's just that after Jo Jones left, the band's time feel became, well... "institutional," for lack of a better word. It's fearsomely precise but it's no longer the kind of swing I can relate to.

I will say that Sinatra at the Sands is really enjoyable. I think you'd have give a lot of the credit for that to Quincy. (And to the headliner, natch.)

But here we are talking about the old stuff again! Let's have some more shout-outs for recent records.


Curious to know what you think of that Carnegie Hall Jazz Band CD that downbeat felt the need to give 2 stars. I personally think Jim wrote his ass off on those but what do I know, they're 'downbeat' (they also mistook Oatts's soprano solo for Frank Foster, WTF?)

I was just checking out the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra with McNeely, "sound bites". That's up there with East Coast Blow Out for me.

Kinda surprised that George Russell's "New York New York" doesn't seem to make an appearance on people's lists that I've seen.

Also gotta say that Dave Schumacher (the tenor player) is one hell of a writer.

Chris Becker

Ooo - Russell's "New York..." is awesome. I heard that live with Russell conducting at NEC awhile ago. "Think you can lick it? Buy you a ticket...go!!!"

Sorry, carry on...maybe I should actually look at the list everyone is talking about...


RE: the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band recording, I think Jim's chart on "Sing Sing Sing" is very hip. But I also think it's unquestionable that the Vanguard band plays his music with a ton more authority.

RE: pre-electric George Russell, New York, NY a blast (Max is on fire) but have you heard Jazz In The Space Age? It is delicious lunacy, beginning with Paul Bley and Bill Evans trading free ideas over a Milt Hinton bass ostinato.

cbj smith

Am I detecting a slight New York bias among the commentators here? Big influence of mine early on - Toshiko Akiyoshi, maybe Road Time or Tales of a Courtesan are excellent examples. Great band, great writing, great Lew Tabackin, changed the face of big band music. But she was based in L.A. for those recordings around 1980 or so, so I hope she qualifies.

Another big influence of mine (and maybe yours, Darcy?) but probably hardly anyone else, Phil Nimmons and his Nimmons 'n' Nine (plus 6) recording Atlantic Suite, circa 1976 in Toronto.

To those who pooh-pooh Bill Holman, try Street Suite from circa 1986 (I can't find it on CD ANYWHERE and I only have a cassette! Can anyone help me out?) and one of his latest recordings Brilliant Corners.

I hate to say it, but some of the university jazz programs are turning out some mighty fine recordings, too. I know here in the blogosphere it's hip to sneer at the schools, but they DO come through at times! Plus everyone seems to be avoiding mentioning the European bands, except for a couple of recordings that have American guest artists. George Gruntz, Martial Solal, L'Orchestre National de Jazz in France, not to mention the European composers who write for WDR, the Danish Radio Orchestra and the Metropole Orchestra, are all terrific, and are a pleasant change from Count Basie, as nice as he is.

cbj smith

Oh yeah, one more. Jaco Pastorius's Word of Mouth (1981), which I got turned onto by accident after hearing his KILLING arrangement for Joni Mitchell on her Mingus album of "Dry Cleaner From Des Moines." I wish he had written more. He was very promising.


Hi Chris,

I can't believe I forgot about Jaco's Word of Mouth! You are right, that certainly belongs on any list of great post-1980's bigband recordings.

Of course, Kenny Wheeler lives in the UK and the band for Music for Large and Small Ensembles is mostly European musicians. Django Bates is a Brit. Maybe you can recommend some worthy George Gruntz and Martial Solal recordings?

cbj smith

That's right, I'd forgotten that Kenny and Django are British for all practical purposes (except we Canadians still claim Kenny as ours!). And Maynard Ferguson's (also a Canuck) first MF Horn album was recorded in England (no, I am not kidding about this one! It was hip and modern and not at all dancy and this album changed the sound of big bands, but it was definitely pre-1980, so probably doesn't qualify for your list.)

I'll check my collection for Gruntz and Solal, though I doubt I have the definitive albums of either one. I know some others in the links you provided mentioned Francy Boland, with which I concur mightily, also Muhal Richard Abrams, who is American, but that's okay too. 8-)

And I would also like to put forth for consideration the fine Boston group Orange Then Blue, who kick royal butt in many ways. I only have their "Funkallero" album, but I have heard them live a couple of times as well playing other material.


Nice post!

Andrew Hill's big band, toward the end there, was something special. And his writing suits the large format (well, it suits anything really).

I also want to big up Randy Weston, specifically Uhuru Africa. When I discovered his big band records they opened many musical doors.

tom g

Yeah, Andrew Hill's "A Beautiful Day" is a pretty wild ride!!! But all in all I not only detect a "NY bias" but a "US bias". What about all the great European Big Bands??? - like the Vienna Art Orchestra (I especially like the early albums, i.e. "From No Time To Rag Time") or the Big Ba(n)d Stuff by German Compser Klaus König, or Jon Balke's Magnetic North Orchestra from Norway (great records on ECM), Barry Guy & the London Jazz Composers Orchestra etc. It's really disappointing to see how narrow all these discoussions are among jazz people who only speak one f...ing language ... Travel the spaceways!


My first inclination was to point out Globe Unity '74 with the choir (why not more choirs?), but it seemed sort of out for this post. Maybe not!

why not more choirs?

This is a question that answers itself, no?

Seriously, though, I would love it if someone was actually willing to go to bat for "Most Tolerable Jazz Records In Which Choirs Are Involved." (MP3 excerpts a must, clearly.)

tom g

"It's Time" (Impulse) by Max Roach, His Chorus & Orchestra is pretty good, I think ... but sorry: no MP3s (buy the CD!) No European Contenders in this field - as far as I can think (never heard the Globe Unity with singers) ...

Charles S.

West Coast shout-out:
I can't say enough good things about Vinny Golia's large ensemble. Not much online for it but you might get a sense from here:

or here:

No choir involved.

And while I am thinking of it...
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra most recent one is post 1980s and his first one, is that 1969, ought to be on someone's list.

And one more,
Julius Hemphill Big Band on Elektra, 1988 is one of my faves.

and for choir involvement, I second Roach's and the only other one I can think of actually listening to is Donald Byrd's A New Perspective.

cbj smith

Okay, one more. I was worried about being sneered at for it being so accessible and easy to listen to, but after I mentioned MF Horn with nary a sniff in earshot, I may as well go for it. Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra Live in Montreux in 1980, playing charts of Herbie Hancock's music arranged by Bob Mintzer. He was able to make that particular music fit in a big band format more successfully than anyone else had been able to at the time. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.


Martial Solal et Son Orchestre Jouent Hodeir (1984) is gorgeous if you can find a copy; a nice bridge between Hodeir's 50s arrangements of Monk et al and Solal's own big band music, amongst which Dodecaband Plays Ellington (1997) and Exposition Sans Tableau (2005) are especially exciting and bracing. The Italian Instabile Orchestra's Litania Sibilante (1999) is a glorious example of simultaneous precision and and abandon, and some unearthly textures.

Ed Leimbacher

great thread weaving on down the scroll here! i'm learning about many previously unheard albums. however, as an early Kirchner responder, i did ask about the Laurent Cugny albums (franncais, n'est-ce pas?) involving Gil Evans. and i mentioned Maria Schneider's on-going successful ensemble. any comments or opinions about those works? thanks in advance.

ben wolfson

What about the various Territory Bands, the Exploding Star Orchestra, the New York Underground Orchestra, Andrea Centazzo's Mitteleuropa Orchestra, the Szilard Mezei Ensemble, Larry Ochs' The Mirror World, ROVA + Fujii's An Alligator in Your Wallet...



The albums I mentioned above focuses on post-1980 recordings but obviously the original Liberation Music Orchestra record from 1969 is a must-hear (although more for the performances than the writing as such). I had forgotten that the followup, Ballad of the Fallen was from 1983 (I thought it was from the 1970's), otherwise I'd certainly have included it.


I have not heard the Laurent Cugny+Gil Evans stuff. Obviously Maria's band is tremendous -- Bill put Evanescence on his original list. I might have also added Concert in the Garden but I think it basically goes without saying that all of her records are essential listening.


Any album recommendations for these bands? As far as I can tell, the NY Underground Orchestra only ever recorded Fragments, the Exploding Star Orchestra has a couple (one with the great Bill Dixon as a featured guest), the Mitteleuropa Orchestra has a bunch of records including a 6-CD box set from the early 1980's, and it is not immediately obvious to me which of Szilard Mezei's recordings are with large ensemble. A few descriptive words about what you dig about these records would be most welcome, too, since there's not a whole lot of information available online about some of these artists.

Also, I assume you are not talking about the original territory bands, which would fall well outside the post-1980 focus we are going for here. More recently, the only self-described "Territory Band" I'm aware of is Steven Bernstein's (ironically NY-based) Millennial Territory Orchestra. Did you mean something else?

r gould-saltman

Another shout-out for Vinny Golia's Large Ensemble, from the original 1982 UCLA concert 3 disc vinyl, through the (somewhat) more accessible "Pilgrimage To Obscurity" (live at the old LA Theater Center) (I was actually in the audience for both these) and on into the 21st Century!

Also, what about the Afro-Cuban contingent? Bobby Sanabria's first big band album (another live session) is mostly wonderful, if only for the updating of the Afro-latin side of Dizzy's big band work, and the "deconstructed Supersax" closing of "Donna Lee"!


Ken Vandermark's Territory Bands. They seem to be given a number for each release, hence the plural. The NY Underground Orchestra has at least one more release, The Labyrinth. The Szilard Mezei Ensemble's Nád/Reed is with 14 people; my memory of it is actually that the whole album is hard to take in a sitting. The only Mitteleuropa thing I have is a live album which might be a boot since it doesn't show up in the discography on Centazzo's web page.

I don't characterize the stuff because being good at writing about music is why they pay you the big bucks (right?) though I will endorse Golia's large ensemble and Jazz in the Space Age, man.

just passing

I'm interested that Django Bates and Wheeler get namechecked in this discussion but not, for instance, Mike Westbrook, Keith Tippett's various ensembles or The Brotherhood of Breath - all with overlapping personnel at various times.


Hi JP,

The whole point of this discussion is to expand awareness. The groups you mention don't really get a whole lot of exposure over here. So if you want to say a few words of advocacy or recommend a few records that you think are particularly strong, that would be great.

ben wolfson

If you want to maintain the 80s-and-after focus, the Brotherhood of Breath would be out, even though there's been a ton of reissues and non-re live archival reissues lately. For some reason the BoB just made me remember Paul Dunmall's Moksha Big Band (about which I remember very little—the real reason I said so little about the bands above is that I haven't heard most of their music in some time), maybe because of the britjazz thing.

I would be interested in knowing about Tippett's ensembles. The only large ensemble of his of which I'm aware is Centipede. That was a big fucking band.

JJ Anderson

Sam Rivers's two Big Band albums on RCA/Victor from the 1990s seem pretty important to include in any discussion of post-1980 big band writing. He sort of set the hisrtorical pace for BB writing that is both groove-oriented and abstracted....so I think a lot of the younger composers mentioned are indebted to him in one way or another. And those RCA records really up the ante in terms of the precision with which the charts are played.

cbj smith

Dave Holland Big Band - What Goes Around 2001 (standouts for me are "Razor's Edge" and "Blues for CM") Lots of blowing and maybe a bit under-arranged by some standards, but he has found some fascinating solutions to the ever-present problem of handling blowing freedom in a written-out situation. I think this band is essential listening for anyone who is struggling with how to preserve small-group agility and flexibility in a large-ensemble context.

McCoy Tyner Big Band - I hear a lot of early Gil Evans influence in this band, but everything is higher-energy and of course, there's McCoy influencing the proceedings, even though there are a variety of arrangers. Uptown Downtown 1988, Turning Point 1991, and Journey 1993 are the three albums I have of his, but maybe the first is the one I like best, just because it seems more sincere somehow.

Dial and Oatts Brassworks. Okay, it's a honkin' quartet with a brass section tacked on, but the brilliant (you know I don't use that word freely) semi-classical arrangements by Richard de Rosa hold everything together superbly. It's hard for me to imagine these tunes without the brass arrangments, though I imagine they must have existed that way.

Red Colm O'Sullivan

For Martial Solal, I would definitley be recommending the 2 albums from the early '80s, both just titled Big Band or Orchestra, I think. One reissued on Dreyfus and the other, my favorite, on CY Records. This last has some most wonderfully conceived music. He is, after all, a Godammed genius (card carrying, I would say).
Also very glad someone above has made the point that Toshiko's band is as important as it really is (was) - I think your commenter says that she changed the face of big band jazz, and I think that's accurate: why Bill Kirchner doesn't get it is beyond me (then again, I don't get Elvis).
Oh, and Rob McConnell's Boss Brass is consistently fantastic: what about his miraculous chart on "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", definitley a classic.
And finally, Kirchner's choice of a Francy Boland album, the Getz "Colour Schemes" is particularly frustrating: this album is very unrepresentitive of why Francy Boland's band with Kenny Clarke was as special as it was... not at all typical, and maybe just not as good either. I know he makes the point that the writing is particularly adventurous, but I don't think it's especially successful.
Final note: just for pure true quality, the greatest big band recording of the last 20 or so years is the Benny Carter "Central City Sketches" album on Musicmasters which includes the premier of an extended and very rich new work. What a treasure. Definitive work from the master (and with a rhythm section of John Lewis/Ron Carter/Mel Lewis!!!!!!!!!!!).

Red Colm O'Sullivan

Oh and I hope people are crediting Charles Tolliver's great band too (2 new albums in recent times)


I really love (specifically) the work of Gil Goldstein on Brecker´s Wide Angles. Great writing.

ben wolfson

The Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Orchestra cover album of Out to Lunch is a kind of weird exercise, but the parallel/series circuit albums are excitingly cluttered. (And the renditions of O'Rourke's "Eureka" completely overshadow O'Rourke's original.)

r gould-saltman

. . . and, my God, how did I forget Irakere? Four horns, guitar and e-piano/synth draped over bata drumming!

r gould-saltman


Irakere were great, of course, but they were by no stretch a "big band."

Chuck Dotas

Steve Lacy + 19, and the previously mentioned Sam Rivers recordings and Andrew Hill's Beautiful Day are all great examples of music that will probably seem a lot less prickly 40 years from now, much like the early 60's and late 50's George Russell small and large ensemble recordings sound now. Also, John Hollenbeck's large ensemble stuff (and small ensemble stuff) is fantastic. Plenty of great European writers, of course. Excellent writers are everywhere.

Matt Weiner

I'll enthusiastically second It's Time as a kick-ass jazz album with a choir. Excerpts can be found on its Amazon page. I also like at least some of Andrew Hill's Lift Every Voice though I can see people being turned off by the choir on that. After that... huh. (Well I do enjoy the Globe Unity album but their other albums are a better bet.)

About Just Passing's recs:

For Mike Westbrook, my favorite thing by him is The Cortege, mostly settings of poems of various sorts and attains some real moments of majesty, but it's long out of print. Fans of Uri Caine's Mahler work should also check out Westbrook-Rossini, which was reissued not so long ago on Hatology (though I think that may be a studio version, not the live version I've heard). Both of those feature singing by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton which might not be to all tastes. (The Rossini actually has less singing -- The Cortege is almost all vocal.) For more straightforward big-bandy stuff I've like Metropolis, from the early 70s, which tends to have some out horn improvisation over pretty steady rockish beats. Avoid the Beatles album.

The Brotherhood of Breath Bremen to Bridgewater album is one I like -- the recording isn't always the greatest and there are some unpolished moments, but again it gets some pretty ferocious grooves up with out solos on top of it. The band includes a lot of the South African expats who were in the UK at the time (Chris McGregor was the leader, Dudu Pukwana did a lot of soloing) as well as prominent British free players like Evan Parker and Marc Charig -- Parker is not in his free improv bag here (not even as much as on Kenny Wheeler's Song for Someone).

The only big-band Tippett I've heard is Centipede, which I can't really recommend.

Matt Weiner

Some more big band records I like, mostly toward the out end of the spectrum:

John Surman/John Warren's Tales from the Algonquin is a great one from '69 or so, mostly featuring the same kind of British players who would show up on Wheeler records of the day.

Clifford Thornton's The Gardens of Harlem with the Jazz Composer's Orchestra is a fantastic album (I think never out on CD) based around rhythms from different places in Africa and its diaspora -- a lot of infectious multipercussion on it, and about three different songs that I have in my head right now.

Satoko Fujii has a lot of big band records besides the one Ben mentioned. The only one I've heard is Jo which has a pretty wide stylistic mix -- there's a Balkan-sounding piece, a few fairly far out pieces, and one particular absolutely amazing track (track 3, Okesa-Yansado) which is like nothing I've heard in jazz; it's like jazz Scelsi or Xenakis. It starts with a huge sound, like you're on a mountaintop, and just builds with a pounding drum beat and a cavernous baritone solo. The record's worth it for just that track. You can hear an excerpt on its Amazon page.

William Parker's The Mayor of Punkville is another out record with a lot of NYC people, with a lot of the pieces are built on straightforward riffs, which sometimes build for a long time (there are two tracks that are about half an hour each). It's more like the Brotherhood of Breath album than any of the ones I've mentioned so far. My favorite track on this is the last one, an elegy for Lester Bowie, which starts with a trumpet playing a very simple melody and turns into a collective improvisation where you can still hear that melody through.

ben wolfson

Holy crap, it's Matt Weiner!

Red Colm O'Sullivan

For a British big band, why it's just GOT to be Tubby Hayes - do check out the things up on YouTube... Man, he could make a band PLAY. (I suppose the album to go for would be "100% Proof", and, indeed, much of that incendiary material is represented in the YouTube posts).
Be sure of one thing, though: that really was the band...


Carla Bley: Big Band Theory

Mingus Big Band: live in a club

Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band - on this song:
( "High Maintenance" )


almost forgot

Peter Apfelbaum & the Hieroglyphics Ensemble: Jodoji Brightness

Charles Mingus: Epitaph

Dan Aldag

How about a little love for the Left Coast? John Clayton's writing for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is probably the best current representation of the Basie/Thad tradition. Check out the album they did with Milt Jackson, "Explosive!" and dig the voicings on "Bags' Groove." I heard the band play this material live with Jackson not long before he passed, and Bags was so great he got a standing O in the middle of the set after playing a ballad, "Nearness Of You." It's definitely worth noting that the band does not sound anything like what you might think an L.A. band would sound like. Lots of blues feeling and expression...

Also, someone who deserves WAY more attention than he's getting is Oakland-based Marcus Shelby. He knows Ellington AND 12-tone techniques. Check out his oratorio "Harriet Tubman" and "Port Chicago", an album-length work about one of the most shameful (and little-known) incidents of WWII.


As it's seems as though it's mostly stateside music, it's nice to see references to more European music creeping in in the comments section. A couple of additions which people might enjoy are :

Trygve Seim - I would recommend for this discussion 'Different Rivers' & 'Sangam'. This is very original writing for big band (large ensemble) with a very interesting line up of instruments.

The BJO (Brussels Jazz Orchestra) - have recorded several CDs - all recent - and often work with the likes of Maria Schnieder (ask her about them) and Kenny Werner for example. In fact if people are interested I think they will be in residence at the Lincoln Center in the near future - check LC website if you're interested.

In fact most countries in Europe have a big band representing them nowadays, Orchestra Jazz de Matosinhos (Portugal) NJO (France), BJO (Belgium), NDR (Germany)
http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=33758&pg=1 to name a few - many collaborations between the 'big guns' from the states and the local big band. Most of these have albums of which i must admit I can't personally recommend, but, you can usually find stuff on the net or YouTube just to get a little taster of the music. I suppose that one advantage in Europe is the subsidy sytems which i general make it possible for such big bands to exist.

Although this is not the post what seems to be almost as interesting is the American centralized jazz scene and a total ignorance of the European scene. Unfortunately many players go/come to New York just to become recognized back home, of course they learn something as well. But, that's another discussion to be had at a later date.

In interesting article (maybe mentioned already?) is a AAJ article on the small ensmeble and it's future - http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=33758&pg=1.

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