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Will Big Bands Ever Come Back? Don't Look Now . . .

*** 1/2 THE LINCOLN CENTER JAZZ ORCHESTRA; "Live in Swing City: Swingin' With the Duke"; Columbia

*** 1/2 THE CLAYTON-HAMILTON JAZZ ORCHESTRA WITH MILT JACKSON; "Explosive!"; Qwest / Warner Bros.

**** VARIOUS GROUPS; "Blue Big Bands"; Blue Note

April 11, 1999|DON HECKMAN

Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra follows up its recent Southland appearance with this solid collection of Duke Ellington works--the first entry in what will be a stream of Ellington recordings, from the source himself, as well from other artists, celebrating the centennial of the legendary composer-bandleader's birth.

The tracks have the dynamic feeling of a live, dance-hall setting, with the orchestra playing both as a jazz ensemble and as an interactive engine of rhythm for dancers--a combination reflecting much of the history of the Ellington orchestra. And the appeal of the music is further enhanced by the inclusion of such lesser-heard Ellington items as "Bli Blip" (with a vocal by Dianne Reeves), "Chinoiserie," the perfectly conceived "Portrait of Louis Armstrong" and "Multi Colored Blue" (by Billy Strayhorn).

Even the more familiar tunes, however, take on a somewhat different perspective in the hands of this gifted ensemble, which--especially in the stunning blend of its saxophone section--has a firm individual identity. "Mood Indigo," for example, showcases Marsalis' trumpet solo before the familiar theme enters to conclude the number. As an added attraction, "Cottontail" spotlights a tenor saxophone solo by Illinois Jacquet (famous for his defining solo on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home"), then harmonizes the piece's original Ben Webster solo for the entire saxophone section--an imaginative recasting of the tune that would doubtless have amused Ellington.

The LCJO has taken a few raps for its dedication to the living preservation of the jazz repertory. But hearing its work on this recording and in live concerts, it's hard to argue with Marsalis' contention that he is simply presenting some of the great music of the 20th century in a fashion no different from that of, say, the New York Philharmonic playing a Beethoven symphony.

Bassist-arranger John Clayton is taking on a different task with the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, which he co-leads with his brother, saxophonist Jeff Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton. The economics of the current music scene make it virtually prohibitive to maintain a large jazz ensemble. Yet the Claytons and Hamilton have done an impressive job of not only keeping together a solid cadre of players, but also accomplishing the far more difficult task of molding them into a unit with a voice of its own.

"Explosive!," a collaboration with veteran vibist Milt Jackson, is particularly interesting as a forecast of how the orchestra will function this summer, when it makes its debut as the resident jazz ensemble at the Hollywood Bowl. And if the performances here are any indication, it should be a season filled with musical fireworks. John Clayton's arrangements frame Jackson's vibes in settings--especially Jackson's own classic "Bags' Groove" and the lovely standard "The Nearness of You"--that provide rhythmic drive supplemented with lush but not intrusive harmonic surroundings. There is, in addition, a feature for the Clayton brothers on Johnny Mandel's ballad "Emily," with a particularly sensitive bowed bass chorus from John Clayton.

The revitalization of the big jazz band format by the LCJO and the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra is a reminder of the great appeal, and the great diversity possible within large jazz group instrumentation. "Blue Big Bands," a reissue compilation--and an extremely good one--is a further reminder of how good big jazz bands were in the past. Released as part of Blue Note's "Blue Series," it includes some familiar items, among them the original studio versions (for Roulette) of Count Basie's "Splanky" and "Li'l Darlin,' " and a spirited live rendering of Don Ellis' 7/4 version of Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance."

Even more intriguing is the range of selections. There are, for example, two unusual works by ensembles led by two legendary arranger-composers, Gil Evans and George Russell. The Evans track, from 1958, takes an offbeat look at Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo's "Manteca," with featured soloing from the alto saxophone of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Russell's ensemble, recorded live in 1983, is a tribute to Miles Davis' "So What" centered around Davis' solo rather than the work's theme.

Other tracks showcase the Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Gerald Wilson and Thad Jones & Mel Lewis orchestras, as well as studio ensembles led by Chet Baker, Stanley Turrentine, Joe Sample and Gil Fuller--impressive evidence of the often-overlooked vitality of big band jazz in the period between 1957 and 1983.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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