There was a time when big jazz bands were so numerous and held in such esteem that the best of them might show up virtually anywhere in the United States, no matter how small the town: Duke Ellington in Fargo, North Dakota; Artie Shaw in Palacios, Texas; Woody Herman in Eugene, Oregon; Stan Kenton in Redlands, California; Count Basie in a succession of one-nighters across the upper Midwest. It was an era in which good music and popular music were often one and the same. The swing era thrived for only a decade or so. The bonanza of big bands began to fade in the late forties. By the end of the 1950s, it had pretty much played out. Now, most of the big bands that tour are attached to the names of dead leaders. They tend to play country clubs, corporate functions and—now and then—private parties of the wealthy.
There are, of course, innovative large jazz ensembles, among them The Vanguard Orchestra, the Bill Holman Band, the Mingus Big Band, Bob Brookmeyer’s New Arts Orchestra, the Jon Faddis New York Band, The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, the Blue Wisp Big Band, the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, the Mike Vax band, Holland’s amazing Metropole Orchestra, Germany’s powerhouse WDR Big Band and, perhaps most discussed these days, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Chains of one-nighters used to draw bands across the country, providing music for millions and, at the swing era’s peak, employment and experience for thousands of young musicians. The supply of jazz players today is large, the demand for them small. The primary law of economics dictates that the few big bands mostly stay put, rehearsing regularly and working rarely—once a week when they’re lucky, and usually for little money. When they do travel, it is often to big European festivals, seldom to those in the U.S.
It is unusual, nearly unheard of, for a big band based on the east coast to tour in the west, so when the Maria Schneider Orchestra played Seattle’s Jazz Alley for two nights this week, the club was packed. Whether that indicates hunger for the music or response to all the publicity she has been getting lately is beside the point. The evening I was there, 350 people listened with concentration and appreciation to a cross-section of Schneider’s compositions from her five albums. She also unveiled two new pieces.
“Some nights are better than others,” the band’s baritone saxophonist, Scott Robinson, said afterward at the bar. “This was a good one.” Good for the band and for Robinson. His solo over the langorous subtleties of Schneider’s suspended ensemble backgrounds in “Sea of Tranquility” displayed his technical control and emotional range from the big horn’s deep bottom to its altissimo top, where most baritone players do not or cannot go. Robinson’s judiciously applied throat sounds and split tones contributed to the logic and beauty of the solo. In its creativity it was miles beyond what he did with the piece in Schneider’s 2000 CD Allegresse. Robinson has played it dozens of times since. Familiarity breeds insights.
It is a writer’s band, and the writer populates it with musicians who play her demanding compositions with virtuoso skill and provide ensemble cohesiveness that can come only from long, close association. Most of the band’s members have been with Schneider as long as Robinson has. They are from the cream of New York players and include some of the music’s most individual improvisers in a period of jazz not overflowing with individuality. Among the memorable soloists at Jazz Alley was Steve Wilson on “Sky Blue,” a new composition. Schneider told the audience that she wrote it after a friend died. It is a hymn, not a dirge. Wilson’s soprano saxophone tone has breadth and depth rather than the pinched snake-charmer sound favored by many who play the horn. His solo was a marvel of structural unity and passionate delivery. “He took my breath away,” said the woman on the next bar stool, “he’s beautiful.” (The bar is the best place in Jazz Alley for sight lines and balanced sound. Don’t tell anyone; I want to be able to get a seat there the next time.)
A new Schneider piece,“The Pretty Road,” is yet to be recorded, something to anticipate. It has to do with her memories of growing up in Windom, Minnesota, “the environment of my past,” she said. She has layered into it little references to things she recalls—church music, childhood songs, a meadowlark, the sight of the town from a hilltop at night. It is program music of a high order. She featured on flugelhorn and trumpet Ingrid Jensen, who soloed with the self-editing of increased maturity that leavens her spirited virtuosity. The dynamics of Schneider’s ensembles in the piece were meticulously shaped—almost micro-managed—by her graceful but definite conducting.
As the band was about to launch into its final number, a woman in the audience cried out, “Why don’t you sing, Maria?” Ah, of course, a pretty woman on a bandstand must be a singer. Every female jazz musician has dealt with the stereotyping a hundred times. Schneider responded with good humor, “Some night I’m going to do that. I’ll sing ‘My Ideal,’ and you’ll go running.”
Through the evening, there were fine solo moments from trombonist Rock Ciccarone, alto saxophonist Charles Pillow, Greg Gisbert on trumpet and flugelhorn, pianist Frank Kimbrough, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry and, in the flamenco surge of “Buleria, Soleá Y Rumba,” a wild few moments from tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin. McCaslin’s ardor was so appropriate to the spirit of the music, his solo so entwined with Schneider’s ensemble passages that when a man at the bar was moved to give a loud whoop, dagger stares from those around him discouraged further interference. It was a listening crowd. John Wikan on cajon and Peruvian percussionist Hugo Alcaraz swelled the band to twenty members for this three-part Spanish extravaganza. Following Gisbert’s memorable flugelhorn solo, the interaction among Wikan, Alcaraz and drummer Clarence Penn, punctuated hilariously by Penn’s cowbell triplets, concluded in a feat of rhythmic precision that brought the piece to an abrupt halt, setting off a joyous roar from the audience. Now it was okay to whoop.
Maria Schneider does not sing. She writes music. Her band sings it for her.
Another innovative big band is L.A.’s Luckman Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of James Newton.