Is it a small orchestra or a large ensemble
I was asked for a list of my five favorite big band recordings, for a downbeat feature Frank Hadley is writing. Even though I know there was a bit of blog-world discussion about this a few months ago (as usual Darcy James Argue was on the case with the roundup), it still ended up being a tough assignment; it’s so hard to nail down just five favorites, there’s so much spectacular stuff out there. (It hurts to have Basie, Gil Evans, Brotherhood of Breath, and however many others left out!) But in the end I went the sentimental route, and chose five recordings I love that have particular meaning for me personally.
Duke Ellington – Great Paris Concert (1963)
It would be easy to have just a list of Ellington records. I probably have close to a hundred Duke records, and honestly, just about all of them are pretty great. But as much as I love the early stuff (especially the Bubber Miley and Rex Stewart eras), and some of the later classics like Far East Suite or …And His Mother Called Him Bill, The Great Paris Concert would have to be my pick. It was one of the first Ellington recordings I ever bought (recommended to me by James Jabbo Ware, see below, when I took a workshop with him when I was a teenager), and it remains one of my favorites. The ensemble playing on this recording is unbelievable, totally loose and relaxed and totally together at the same time; listen to the “Rockin’ in Rhythm” that kicks things off, that’s the best band in the world. Johnny Hodges is in particularly masterful form, that alone is reason for joy. And for about a year when I was in my twenties, I would listen to this version of “Concerto for Cootie” before every gig, I’m still trying to get that sound.
Anthony Braxton – Creative Orchestra (Koln) 1978
Playing Braxton’s large ensemble music has been an inspirational and transformative experience for me for over fifteen years. To use Anthony’s own terminology, it is restructuralist music; it acknowledges, even celebrates, existing musical traditions while reinventing and reimagining those principles in extraordinarily creative ways. The Creative Orchestra Music 1976 album (that was just reissued on the Mosaic box set) is justly recognized as a masterpiece, but I actually like this 1978 Koln concert more; this is a touring band that has truly lived in the music, there’s both a comfort with the material and a sense of exploration that couldn’t happen with a studio record. It’s an incredible bunch of musicians, including an all-star brass section with Leo Smith, Kenny Wheeler, George Lewis, and Ray Anderson. It was also one of the first recordings/tours for folks like Marty Ehrlich, Ned Rothenberg, Vinnie Golia, and Marilyn Crispell, launching them all to pretty wonderful careers; clearly, I’m not the only person whose musical outlook was changed by playing Braxton’s music.
Sun Ra – Purple Night (1989)
Picking just one Sun Ra recording is like trying to pick just one Ellington, there’s so much wonderful music, and such a diversity of styles and eras. I love the subtly tweaked swing of his late 50s-early 60s recordings (Fate in a Pleasant Mood is a particular favorite) as much as the explosive energy of his 70s work (Concert for the Comet Kohoutek). But I’m going with one of his last albums, Purple Night. While this might not be Ra’s most mind-blowing album, it was my first, and it was a beautiful introduction to his sound world. Weird and funny (”Stars Fell on Alabama”!?!) and intimate, one of the best recordings of Sun Ra’s piano playing I know of, a totally grooving army of percussionists, great solos by John Gilmore and Marshall Allen and Michael Ray and all the Arkestra regulars, and the huge bonus of a fantastic Don Cherry guest appearance.
Fred Ho and the Monkey Orchestra – Monkey Part One (1996)
For me, Fred demonstrated the direct inspiration of Ellington, Mingus, etc did not have to be restricted to traditional instrumentation or jazz forms. (It was also nice to find another Chinese-American creative musician named Ho!) Here he combines a full saxophone section (plus trombone, bass and drums), with Chinese traditional instruments and vocals to tell the story of the Monkey King, one of my favorite mythological trickster figures. True to the Monkey spirit, the music is thrilling and fun, evocative and unique. This is no world music fusion buffet; the blend of styles and rhythms is totally organic and all the instruments are fully integrated into a rich ensemble sound and a great composer’s vision. Yeah, it’s not your usual big band, but the writing clearly deals with that tradition. And every big band should have an erhu anyway.
James Jabbo Ware & the Me We & Them Orchestra – Heritage Is (1995)
I was lucky to have bass trombonist Bill Lowe as an early mentor (and then lifelong friend). Bill is a charter member of James Jabbo Ware’s Me We and Them Orchestra, one of the great underground New York big bands, still going strong after more than three decades, and Bill brought them up to Boston for a performance while I was still in high school. This was the first real big band I ever heard live, not some school or repertory band, but a working composer-led ensemble with its own sound, and I was immediately hooked. Jabbo comes out of the Ellington tradition, crafting tunes to feature specific individuals and musical personalities, fully utilizing the harmonic and timbral potential of a jazz orchestra, harnessing the improvisational energy of post-Coltrane jazz into extended forms and structures. This album captures much of the excitement I felt that first night, with great solos by Lowe, JD Parran, Cecil Bridgewater, John Stubblefield, and Donald Smith among many others, and master percussionist Warren Smith anchoring the rhythm section.