Big band jazz may not exactly be making a comeback, but some vital music, nonetheless, is being played by large ensembles.
Some of it is performed by so-called "ghost bands" such as the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra, with the latter making an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday (see story, Page 7). But quality work is also being done by the Mingus Big Band, Toshiko Akiyoshi's Jazz Orchestra and, for that matter, any number of Los Angeles-based ensembles, including the Bill Holman, Bob Florence and Frank Capp groups, to only name a few.
Although the United States has the best jazz players and the best writers, most American big bands are largely trapped in the commercial music world, obliged to either function in the ghost band arena or to play pick-up gigs.
Things are different in Europe, where ensembles such as the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra and Germany's WDR Big Band have wider musical opportunities as the result of support provided by the public broadcasting networks.
The Metropole Orchestra, started in 1945, has backed an astonishing range of artists including, among dozens of others, Tony Bennett, Joe Cocker, Eddie Daniels, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson and Sarah Vaughan. Given the quality of playing on these two current recordings (Metropole collaborations with Clare Fischer and Ernestine Anderson were also released last month), it's not hard to understand why performers of every genre are eager to record and perform with the 61-member ensemble.
Holman has been the arranger's arranger for years, universally admired for his ability to continually find imaginative new sounds within standard instrumentation formats. With the Metropole Orchestra, he has the opportunity to paint upon an extremely broad musical canvas, and he makes the most of it, especially in the title composition, "Further Adventures," a four-movement work.
Tinged with traces of 20th century classical style, with references to Stravinsky and Bartok here and there, occasionally dipping into soundtrack-style music, Holman shows off the extent of his composing skills. There are passages that don't reach his usual high level, but more often the music successfully blends genres in a way that captures the authenticity of each. And Holman--aided by the Metropole's versatility--is particularly successful at blending jazz elements into a concert orchestra setting.
The Brignola album reveals another aspect of the Metropole's skills: its capacity to serve as a stirring accompanist for a jazz soloist. Brignola's warm, brawny baritone saxophone is beautifully showcased against arrangements (mostly of standards) that are alternately warm (the title track and "When You Wish Upon a Star") and brisk and hard-driving (especially on Jan Wessels' spunky arrangement of "Stella by Starlight."
And, appropriately, there's a quirky dedication to the late saxophonist Gerry Mulligan in Brignola's original, "Gerrylike" (filled with thematic references to such Mulligan works as "Youngblood"), in which he adroitly displays the Mulligan-like aspects of his playing.
Schifrin's revival of "Gillespiana," originally composed for Dizzy Gillespie in 1960, receives a contemporary rendering via a concert performance featuring trumpeter Jon Faddis, saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, and Schifrin's piano in a live performance with the WDR Big Band.
Although the band and the soloists play with panache and enthusiasm, the work has a somewhat dated quality. Segments such as the second movement, "Blues," for example, are laid out without much of a sense of internal musical weaving, of the subtle interaction of parts one hopes for in extended works such as these. An added track, Schifrin's setting of Villa-Lobos' "Bachiana Brasileira No. 5" is, in some respects, more intriguing.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).