To some, big bands will always be relegated to the realms of nostalgia, defined by the swinging sounds of the vintage Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Benny Goodman bands of the 30s and 40s. While those classic orchestras do carry a timeless appeal, there are a number of big bands on the scene today that are putting a contemporary twist on that age-old formula. By drawing on their own rock influences, and bringing their renegade harmonic and rhythmic instincts to the proceedings, many of these nouveau big bands are pushing the genre forward while keeping one foot solidly in the tradition. Here are eight exhilarating new examples:
Trumpeter-composer-arranger John Daversa barely conceals his rock roots on Kaleidoscope Eyes: Music of the Beatles (BFM), yet he brings it with classic big band swagger on tunes like the shuffle-swing rendition of “Good Day Sunshine,” which is imbued with bristling passages of tight, Woody Hermanesque “Four Brothers” type unisons by the sax section. The revved-up “I Saw Her Standing There” takes a page from the Maynard Ferguson book on interpreting pop classics and also includes a convincing, flowing rap from the leader along with some heated call-and-response exchanges with tenor saxophonist Katisse Buckingham. Daversa carries the melody on a mellow reading of “And I Love Her,” which is buoyed by impressive Claus Ogerman-type arrangements for the 26-piece big band augmented by a 20-piece string section. A busy but brilliant arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” would’ve made George Martin proud while “Here Comes the Sun” begins with soft, breathy trumpet work by the leader and ends with his otherworldly excursions on EVI (Electric Valve Instrument), spurred on by the power precision drumming of Gene Coye, who is also showcased on a percussive rendition of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Recorded live before an intimate audience at Alvas Showroom in San Pedro, California, Kaleidoscope Eyes is brimming with energy and ideas.
On Monk’estra Vol. 1 (Mack Avenue), L.A. keyboardist-composer-arranger John Beasley brings that same kind of boundless energy and fresh vision to the music of Thelonious Monk. Opening with a reinvention of “Epistrophy” performed by his stellar 21-piece band of first-call L.A. studio musicians, and featuring a glistening solo from guest vibist Gary Burton, Beasley and crew jump into a sprightly rendition of “Skippy” that has drummer Gary Novak shifting from slamming back beats to second line groove to 4/4 swing mode. A chill take on “Oska T” contains a voice excerpt from a rare Monk interview and features outstanding trumpet work by Gabriel Johnson. Beasley puts his stamp on the dynamic, swinging second half of the piece, which includes a bracing solo from trombonist Francisco Torres. “Monk’s Processional” is a funky N’awlins brass band breakdown of “Green Chimneys” while a hip-hop take on “’Round Midnight” may seem irreverent to some and relevant to others. Harmonica ace Gregoire Maret guests on a wholly re-imagined version of one of Monk’s most hauntingly beautiful ballads, “Ask Me Now,” while Beasley harmonizes the horns on a jauntily swinging “Little Rootie Tootie,” one of many remarkably ambitious arrangements here.
Bob Mintzer, a former road warrior with the Buddy Rich Band of the mid-70s and a current and longstanding member of the Yellowjackets, revisits his Buddy roots on All L.A. Band (Fuzzy Music). The title itself is an inside Buddy Rich reference (his threat to fire his current group for playing “clams” on the bandstand and replace them with an all L.A. band). From the relaxed Basie-esque swinger “Havin’ Some Fun” to the slow, bluesy Thad Jones dedication, “Tribute,” to the uptempo flag-waver “Runferyerlife” (a big band recreation of a Yellowjackets tune from 1994), this L.A. Band packs a wallop. “Slo Funk,” a tune Mintzer originally wrote for Buddy Rich, is big band jazz in its classic form, ably anchored by a rhythm section featuring drummer Peter Erskine and Mintzer’s Yellowjackets bandmate Russell Ferrante on piano. Where he pushes the envelope is on tunes like “Home Basie,” a funkified groover that features some R&B-inspired, King Curtis-type blowing by Mintzer, the reggae-swing hybrid number “Original People,” the churning Afro-Cuban opener “El Caborojenño,” and the R&B-inspired “New Rochelle.” Mintzer is showcased on several extraordinary tenor solos throughout this rich disc.
Florida-based arranger- conductor Dan Bonsanti, a former member of Jaco Pastorius’ Word Of Mouth Big Band, tackles what is perhaps Jaco’s most complex piece, the suite-like “John And Mary,” with the 14 Jazz Orchestra on Nothing Hard Is Ever Easy. Elsewhere on this inspired project, Bonsanti and his crew interpret Joe Henderson’s waltz-time “Black Narcissus,” Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium,” Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.,” Chick Corea’s waltz-time “Windows,” Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road Jack,” and the Miles Davis vehicle “You’re Under Arrest” (composed by John Scofield) through a big band prism. Their reinvention of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” contains passages of Pastorius’ “Reza.” Tenor sax powerhouse Ed Calle, Florida’s answer to Michael Brecker, provides incendiary solos throughout, including a reharmonized rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Ed Palmero, the big band leader who has exhibited an obsession with the music of Frank Zappa in recent recordings, goes back to that well of inspiration for the fifth time on One Child Left Behind (Cuneiform). Alternating between ambitious originals like “Dirty White Bucks,” “Vengeance,” and “The Goat Patrol” and stately, “difficult listening” Zappa themes like “Grand Wazoo,” “Andy,” and “Cletus Awreetus Awrightus,” Palermo’s large ensemble shows an uncommon tightness in its execution. In mixing more familiar FZ fare like “Village of the Sun” and “Fifty-Fifty” with big band interpretations of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Los Lobos’ “Kiko and the Lavendar Moon,” Palmero presents a convincing argument for these pop gems belonging in the big band pantheon. Special guest Napolean Murphy Brock, a former member of Zappa’s Roxy & Elsewhere band, provides vocals on “Pygmy Twylyte” and a funky “Po-Jama People.” Somewhere FZ is smirking.
On the raucous title track to Fun With Notes (Cabin 2 Music), the Cincinnati-based PsychoAcoustic Orchestra’s first release in 20 years, pianist-composer-arranger Pat Kelly pursues a modernist approach to big band writing in the vein of Charles Mingus, complete with a rich tonal palette and shifting tempos (while evoking “Haitian Fight Song,” “E’s Flat Ah’s Flat Too,” and “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”). Elsewhere on this delightful renegade outing, Kelly and crew emulate the swinging energy of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra on “Allelia,” strike a Basie-esque accord on “The Blues That Never Ends,” then push the envelope on the Sun Ra-inspired processional “Nebulous” as well as on the searching, minor key Trane-inspired “Chant For Ohnedaruth” and the playful tribute to free jazz icon Ornette Coleman, “Ornette.” Saxophonists Steve Hoskins and Rick VanMatre and trumpeter Hank Mautner are among the outstanding soloists on this stellar outing.
Cincinnati Conservatory of Music Jazz Director Scott Belck had the inspired notion of performing the music of hippie jam band Garaj Mahal in a big band setting. And what better person to front the CCM Jazz Orchestra in this endeavor than Garaj Mahal founder and guitar virtuoso Fareed Haque himself? They premiered their collaboration in a performance at Dizzy’s nightclub in New York before documenting it on In Search of Garaj Mahal (Harmonized Records), and the results are spectacular. Funky offerings like “Chester the Pester” and the swaggering, wah-wah fueled “Alvin” hit with rock-tinged fervor while the inventive “Hindu Gumbo,” the mellow acoustic guitar feature “A Fure Peace,” and the odd-metered “Uneven Mantra” explore a more serene and exotic path. But nowhere is the blend of Haque’s rapid-fire chops with punchy horns and Indian-flavored grooves more fully realized than on the excellent closer, “Witchdoctor.” A stunning marriage of East and West.
A charter member of the M-Base school from the 1980s and longstanding member of David Holland’s quintet and big band, trombonist Robin Eubanks combines rhythmically tricky funk with swirling, contrapuntal horn patterns and expressive solos by the members of his 18-piece Mass Line Big Band on the intricately crafted More Than Meets the Ear (ArtistShare). Saxophonists Marcus Strickland and Antonio Hart are outstanding soloists here, along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagan. The leader alternates between acoustic trombone and effects-heavy electronic trombone, the latter coming to the fore on “Full Circle” and “Blues for Jimi Hendrix.” Other highlights on this exhilarating offering include the dynamic “A Seeking Spirit,” the soulful, organ-fueled ballad “Bill and Vera” (dedicated to Eubanks’ parents), the angular M-Base-y workout “Mental Images,” and the vibrant African-meets-Latin closer “Cross Currents.” This release features superb writing on a large canvas by the under-appreciated composer-arranger Eubanks.