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Jazz / WEEKEND REVIEWS

Carnegie Hall Ensemble Recalls Best of Big Bands

November 11, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The big band is the symphony orchestra of jazz. Half of the jazz century that began in the 1900s was dominated by the sounds and the colors of big bands, in a fashion not unlike the preeminence of the symphony orchestra in the 19th century.

There's an odd kind of appropriateness, therefore, that the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, a jazz ensemble supported by a classically oriented institution, has been making a yeoman effort to keep the sound of the big jazz band--with its linked sections of saxophones, trumpets, trombones and rhythm--alive.

The band, which performed at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Auditorium Friday night, is led by Jon Faddis, a trumpeter with a flair for dramatic playing. His fiery solos, brilliant high notes and sterling ensemble work give the group a sound and an attitude that is essential to its musical personality. And his imaginative leadership is particularly pivotal, since the repertoire is so largely based upon new arrangements of familiar jazz and pop standards.

Which is not to suggest that the band is otherwise lacking in soloists, each of whom seemed inspired by Faddis' lead. Among the many players who stepped forward to deliver a series of appealing improvisations: alto saxophonists Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson, tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, trombonists Robin Eubanks and Slide Hampton, trumpeter Ryan Kisor and pianist David Hazeltine. Many have been well-known New York studio players for years, but the cutting edge of their creativity was as sharp as ever.

With big bands, as with symphonies, however, it all comes back to the ensemble--to the manner in which the sections play together as a kind of collective instrument. And the band brought a solid, unified sense of swing to everything it touched, whether it was the sweeping melodies of an "Ellington-Strayhorn Bouquet" (arranged by Randy Sandke), the gutsy rhythms of Hampton's "Frame for the Blues" or the roving, complex harmonies of Garnet Brown's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

In existence for less than five years, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band has already accomplished the difficult task of finding its own voice while simultaneously preserving and enhancing the classic jazz repertoire. And the ensemble, under Faddis' direction, may well be an important factor in the revitalization of one of jazz music's most vital instrumental ensembles.

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