The Big Band Thing: New Perspectives

Comments are still arriving about Bill Kirchner’s list of recommended big band recordings since 1955. You will find the original item here and followups here. Not all of the comments are coming to Rifftides. As discussions will in the internet age, this one gravitated to other sites.
Here is a little of what the unfailingly provocative young composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue wrote on his Secrety Society web site.

The thing is, there’s an awful lot of bigband music that is important to the history of jazz that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me. I’m afraid this would include a s— -ton of music that is beloved by true bigband connoisseurs. For instance, I know thisThumbnail image for Argue.jpg sounds heretical, but most of Count Basie’s output after Jo Jones left the group leaves me totally cold. Also, I’ve never really been able to develop much affection for the various Stan Kenton bands, etc, even when I respect the craftsmanship and inventiveness of some of the writing.
The stuff I like best and respond to viscerally and have invested time in studying in detail really represents only a small corner of the vast bigband universe. The center of this solar system is definitely the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra — especially the first edition of the group with Richard Davis on bass. This has been my favorite bigband since I was thirteen years old.

If Darcy wants to make “big band” one word, he’ll just have to deal with the usage police. To read all of his entry, which includes recommendations of his own, go here. His readers chime in with provocative comments of their own.
On Do The Math, Ethan Iverson, pianist of The Bad Plus, rambles engagingly with the big band discussion as a sort of touch stone. Here’s part of his rambling.

I didn’t come from a family interested in music. We had a record player but hardly any records. However, my aunt and uncle had a small collection of 60’s-era stuff, and when we visited them I would head straight to their living room and start Iverson.jpgspinning platters. The two discs that just astounded me were This Time By Basie: Hits of the 50s and 60s and Boogie Woogie Piano Stylings by Art Simmons.
(Simmons isn’t well-known; I haven’t heard his record in about 25 years. In fact, I had forgotten entirely about Boogie Woogie Piano Stylings until today. Within a few minutes of reading Darcy’s post, I found and purchased a copy on eBay for a slight sum. Looking at this fabulous cover art really takes me back.)
After realizing that I always played them over and over, my relatives let me borrow the Basie and Simmons records so that I could tape them on my home reel-to-reel player.
Perhaps my younger readers don’t know what a reel-to-reel player is. The picture at the top of this post might look like serious studio equipment – and maybe it is, high-end ones are still used – but the one in my house looked just like that and was merely the clunky predecessor to the compact cassette tape. A reel-to-reel tape deck was the only common way to tape an LP before about 1970 or so.

tape deck.jpg
I stole Ethan’s picture of the old Sony reel-to-reel machine. Iverson does get back to the matter of big bands. To read his entire entry, click here.
I still have the Revox reel-to-reel I inherited from Paul Desmond and use it frequently. I wish that some of my newer components were of Revox quality.

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  1. Mel Narunsky says

    Consider yourself lucky that you can still get components of any quality for your Revox. I had to jettison my trusy old Akai XV and a thirty year’s accumulation of tapes because no replacement components could be found for it. Anywhere. Neither could I find a machine of any make or model to purchase. So many jazz concerts, recorded live and taped from the radio, lost forever because of planned obsolesence.

  2. Red Colm O'Sullivan, says

    Following your direction to Darcy James Argue’s site, I see he’s looking particularly at Big Band recordings made since the ’80s, and I think that’s a very healthy thing to do too. I would say that these are some that are important to me:
    For Martial Solal, I would definitley be recommending the 2 albums from the early ’80s, both just titled Big Band or Orchestra, I think. One reissued on Dreyfus and the other, my favorite, on CY Records. This last has some wonderfully conceived music. He is, after all, a Godammed genius (card carrying, I would say).
    Also very glad someone has made the point that Toshiko’s band is as important as it really is (was) – I think your commenter says that she changed the face of big band jazz, and I think that’s accurate: why Bill Kirchner doesn’t get it is beyond me (then again, I don’t get Elvis).
    Oh, and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass is consistently fantastic: what about his miraculous chart on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, definitley a classic.
    For Slide Hampton, I really do think his Jazz Masters’s big band (check their startlingly great “Dedicated to Diz” live at The Village Vanguard on Telarc) is essential, as is Jimmy Heath’s band – the recent “Turn Up The Heath” is just great.
    And, I must say, Bill Kirchner’s choice of a Francy Boland album, the Getz “Colour Schemes” is particularly frustrating: this album is very unrepresentitive of why Francy Boland’s band with Kenny Clarke was as special as it was… not at all typical, and maybe just not as good either. I know he makes the point that the writing is particularly adventurous, but I don’t think it’s especially successful (I know Getz was dissapointed too).
    Final note: just for pure true quality, the greatest and most important big band recording of the last 20 or so years – in my humble but emphatic opinion – is the Benny Carter “Central City Sketches” album on Musicmasters which includes the premier of an extended and very rich new work. What a treasure. Definitive work from the master (and with a rhythm section of John Lewis/Ron Carter/Mel Lewis!!!!!!!!!!!).
    Oh and I hope people are crediting Charles Tolliver’s great band too (2 new albums in recent times).