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Jazz | Spotlight

Vibrant Evidence That Big Bands Can Still Connect

June 16, 2002|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times.

While big bands haven't been very visible in recent years, they haven't disappeared completely, by any means. Nor have they ceased to be a powerful instrumental vehicle for musicians and composers. But they need more support.

Recording a big band is expensive enough to significantly reduce the number of CD releases of new performances (although reissues, which obviously cost considerably less to produce, arrive with some frequency). Many recordings are simply labors of love, with musicians working for bare minimum, and no one expecting to break even--much less make a profit. Still, the quality and diversity of the ensembles that do manage to release CDs serve as persuasive testimony to the enduring importance of the big jazz band.

Let's start with a pair of recordings centered on the groundbreaking work of the Dizzy Gillespie big bands.

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Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band, "Things to Come" (***, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild). Trumpeter Jon Faddis (who was music director of Gillespie's last big band) has been a determined supporter of the legacy through his efforts to honor the trumpet playing that was a primary contributor to the bebop revolution of the '40s, as well as the equally influential compositions and arrangements for small groups and big bands. His Gillespie Alumni All-Star group includes some stellar talent associated at one time or another with the bebop great--including saxophonists James Moody and Jimmy Heath, trumpeter Claudio Roditi, and trombonist Slide Hampton.

This outing, recorded at a September 2000 concert, vividly displays the stirring life force still present in such classic items associated with the Gillespie big band as "Manteca," " 'Round Midnight" and the still extraordinary-sounding Walter Fuller composition "Things to Come." Ragged edges here and there underscore the powerful technical demands in the music, but the performances are spirited enough to more than compensate for the occasional flaws. Faddis does his usual persuasive take on the Gillespie trumpet parts, and there are fine solo contributions, especially from Moody, Hampton, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart and pianist Renee Rosnes.

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Dizzy Gillespie, "Bebop Professor" (*** 1/2, Bluebird/RCA). In contrast to the Gillespie Alumni Band, here's the real deal. Although only seven of the 13 tracks display the trumpeter's big band of the late '40s (the rest are small-group efforts), the selections that are included offer convincing illustrations of the twisting rhythms and thick-textured, dissonant harmonies being explored by bop arrangers and composers of the period.

Definitive numbers such as "Good Bait," "Two Bass Hit" and "A Night in Tunisia" make it clear that bop writers were perfectly capable of producing appealing melodies. Gillespie's original version of "Manteca" affords an interesting contrast with the Alumni Band's version. And George Russell's pioneering Latin jazz-tinged "Cubana Be/Cubana Bop" is a fascinating work (pair of works, actually) that deserves frequent revisiting and reinterpretation through big band repertory ensembles. Unfortunately, such ensembles are in short supply these days (at least in this country), with a relatively small number functioning on a daily basis over an extended period of time. That's a shame, because the few such aggregations that do exist make a convincing case for the instrumentation's far-ranging potential.

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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, "Can I Persuade You" (*** 1/2, Planet Arts Records). In many respects, this outfit defines the creative productivity that can flow from an essentially tenured repertory big jazz band. The group came into existence in 1966 as the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra; the current version (Jones left in 1979 and Lewis died in 1990) performs every Monday night at New York's Village Vanguard, initiates residencies at schools, and appears at clinic-workshops and cultural exchanges around the world.

None of this would necessarily matter all that much if the music wasn't first-rate--but it is. Blessed with an extraordinary library of original compositions, the band has gathered works by Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Mintzer, Ed Neumeister, Garnett Brown and Bill Holman for this new release. In addition, there are two moody selections by the late (and far too little known) composer Juliane Beth Cavadini.

The results are consistently engaging. It's a pleasure to hear the mixture of bright swing and easygoing melody-making in Giuffre's writing, even in an early '80s chart, "Dragon Fly." Brown's original "Bachafillen" and his surprisingly vivacious interpretation of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" are a reminder that his composition skills fully match his fine trombone work. And Holman's rendering of "Just Friends," in which he contrasts full band unisons with sudden bursts of contrapuntal byplay, is the work of a vivid musical imagination.

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