Bill Kirchner’s list of recommended big band albums, compiled for his students, brought reaction. As might have been predicted, knowledgeable and opinionated Rifftides readers sent in their comments. Here they are. If more come in, we will compile and post them. Thanks to everyone who responded.
Very nice list. I am glad to see some names included (Don Ellis, Claire Fischer) that others might leave off. I hope your students dig into the music you are suggesting. Of course, I can’t help mentioning a few of my favorite big band CDs from the period for possible inclusion:
Terry Gibbs: Terry Gibbs Dream Band.
Vince Mendoza: Blauklang (a real sleeper here, and not widely heard since it is on a European label).
Bob Curnow’s L.A. Big Band: The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays
Dave Holland Big Band: What Goes Around.
And I just got a copy of a (still to be released) CD earlier this week that knocks my socks off . . Vipassana: Numinous Plays the Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Imagine Steve Reich collaborating with Maria Schneider . . . If you get a chance to hear it, check it out. – Ted Gioia
Nice list, though I might drop a couple, and add something from both
the Clarke/Boland Big Band, and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. – Ted O’Reilly
Bill K.’s list pretty much nails it. I would also suggest JJ Johnson’s
Brass Orchestra on Verve (1997). Architecturally ambitious, rich
in color (no reed section), stylistically comprehensive, and swinging.
JJ’s compositions and arrangements mostly (“Enigma,” “El Camino Real,” etc.) but also arrangements by Slide Hampton, Robert Farnon, Robin Eubanks; and “Swing Spring,” “Gingerbread Boy,” and “Wild Is The Wind.” Long out of print on the CD side, Amazon lists a few copies from its affiliated sellers ($7.15!!) and iTunes has it as well. I’d go for the CD: the booklet is superb and you get notes and a full personnel listing. Full disclosure: I greenlighted the project during my term at Verve. It was probably the biggest money-loser we had, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I miss JJ. – Chuck Mitchell
Seems to me slightly pertinacious to recommend the Basie items listed but then omit the so-called Atomic Basie album on Roulette, often considered the highwater mark of his Fifties band. And what the heck are the Verve Master CDs doing there; do they represent actual albums reissued without name? Or are they anthologies (as would seem)? Also, I would nominate the lovely Laurent Cugny albums dedicated to Gil Evans’ works (and including his participation in small ways) as worthy end-of-life tributes to a real Master; it would be interesting to know what Maria Schneider, Gil’s assistant and protege, thinks of them. – Ed Leimbacher
How about something by Toshiko Akiyoshi: Kogun, perhaps, or Long Yellow Road? They seem to me to be both original, with their synthesis of East and West, and powerful. – John Shade
As a high school student in the mid 60’s (grad 1967) and a saxophone/jazz arranger nerd, I wore out several copies of Woody Herman’s ’63 and ’64 albums along with This Time By Count Basie: Hits of the 50’s and 60’s. My friends were into the Kenton Band, which, other than the live Neophonic Orchestra album, bored me. Don Ellis was big too. I did get swept into this for a while.
The local Wallgreens Drug Store had a “cut out bin” with jazz albums that sold for $1.00. Gary McFarland’s Profiles entered my life. It was the most creative writing I had heard. Innovative yet unpretentious use of altered big band instrumentation. What would normally be the standard trombone section has Bob Brookmeyer on valve bone, Jimmy Cleveland, Bob Northern on French horn, and Jay McAllister on tuba. The reed section is stacked with a mix of the the best doublers and improvisers in New York at the time. Phil Woods, Jerry Dodgion, Zoot Sims, Richie Kamuca, and Jerome Richardson. We get Gabor Szabo AND Sam Brown on guitar (Gabor gets to be Gabor) plus Richard Davis on bass.
My sax player friends were all claiming to be learning “Giant Steps.” I transcribed McFarland’s “Winter Colors” for the school jazz band. A short time later I got a copy of Gary McFarland’s October Suite featuring Steve Kuhn on piano. These two albums turned me into a college composition major. – Richard Mathias
Without nominating a specific example, I’d like to see something from the subgenre of bands that play charts based on recorded solos, like the Monk Town Hall big band and Supersax. Besides “I like it,” I think these bands represent a step in the process by which bebop turned into a musical canon, with acknowledged classics–Bird’s solo on “Embraceable You” or Monk’s on “Little Rootie Tootie.” – John Burke
Bill Holman’s album Brilliant Corners (his arrangements of Monk’s
tunes) belongs in every “best of” list, imho. I wish there was a mention of Gerald Wilson and the Clarke-Boland Big Band. – Barak
(Bill Kirchner included Clarke-Boland in his Stan Getz category – DR)
I fully concur with Kirchner’s comments re: Holman’s earliest work being his best. As much as I love his writing, and I’ll go to hear it at every opportunity, I’ve never heard anything written after the early 60s that approached what he did before then. – Jim Brown
Interesting list that, obviously, touches lots of bases. One immediate addition ought to be Anthony Braxton’s Creative Music Orchestra 1976 (Arista/Mosaic). I’ve always considered it Braxton’s definitive record for the way it reconiles his unique take on the tradition with experimentalism. The album includes two jagged yet groovy stompos with culicue saxohone lines and puncy brass that comes out of Ellington, et. all, but there’s also a remarkably wild march that connects the dots between Sousa, Ives, post-Webern classical modernism and the jazz avant-garde — quintessential Braxton. A few other possibilities that come to mind off the top:
Gunther Schuller’s writing for either of the two albums with Joe Lovano, Rush Hour and Streams of Expression (both Blue Note), bring his Third Stream ideas up to date in very satisfying ways.
I’d like to figure out a way to get Slide Hampton on the list — probably The Way by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (Planet Arts), which features all Hampton charts. Toshiko Akiyoshi’s band ought to be on the list too. The great early RCA LPs from the mid ’70s are now out as a Mosaic Select box, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Long Yellow Road. – Mark Stryker
I saw Bill Kirchner’s list of commendable big band albums since 1955, and I think he’s left out the one album that stands out far above anything on the list, and that’s The Nutcracker Suite by Ellington/Strayhorn on Columbia c.1961. As I see it, this is the most intelligent, most resourceful, most imaginative, musically impeccable, and wittiest composing and arranging for big band that’s ever been heard in jazz. And the band’s performance is electrifying. How does one leave this out–and include two Charles Mingus albums? I don’t get it. But hey, I never got Coltrane either. Or Elvis. Sue me. – Dave Frishberg
Bruce Armstrong says
I just saw this today so am late joining the discussion. I can’t find fault with BK’s selections, but agree with some earlier posters who recommended “Woody 63 & 64” and most definitely Gerald Wilson should be represented. I nominate Gerald’s “The Moment of Truth” which was loaded with great soloists and showcased Gerald’s modal-oriented compositions and orchestrations. I would also add Maynard Ferguson’s “Maynard ’61” with Maynard’s definitive performance of “Ole”–Slide Hampton’s great tour de force for the leader.
Joseph Perez says
This is a question/response for Bill Kirchner and a point he brings up in response to a post by Jack Reilly. I hope he can respond.
Hello Mr. Kirchner,
I was a student of yours at the New School in your composing/arranging class. Being a very active jazz songwriter (something I too have separated from jazz composing) I was intrigued by your mentioning of Bob Brookmeyer’s distinction between the two.
I’ve often thought that it is the SONGWRITING that has become a lost art to a degree as composing has come to dominate the way jazz music is written since the late 60’s. IMHO we had a large divergence between small group jazz and large ensemble jazz in terms of repertoire and compositional practices. It has been GREATLY exaggerated with the boom in jazz education and the modern popularity of “jazz composition” degrees. In fact, in my experience you rarely find young composer/arrangers that can or do write anything that could even be remotely considered a jazz song. Perhaps the only truly great modern practitioners of jazz songwriting are Mulgrew Miller (especially his “Hand in Hand” album, Eric Reed (“It’s Alright to Swing” and “Happiness” being 2 good examples), and a few others that I’m not thinking of (I wouldn’t put Wynton in this group as I see him more as an arranger, though his “Black Codes” album is the DEFINING small-group album of the last 30 years). Jazz composers seem to be a dime a dozen these days as even modern small-group jazz writing seems to be harmony/counterpoint-centric (or the melodies don’t seem to be memorable).
Could you please elaborate on Mr. Brookmeyer’s distinction?
Bill Kirchner says
Nice to hear from you, and I’m glad that you’re actively pursuing your musical goals. You raise some interesting issues, which I’ll do my best to address.
Just as no one has been able to define jazz (thank God!), no one has been able to neatly define “jazz composition”. When I studied with Bob Brookmeyer in 1989-91 as a member of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, he was on a mission–still is, I’m sure–to encourage us to stretch beyond the parameters of the song form. As the late Rayburn Wright wrote in his landmark book INSIDE THE SCORE, “One of the persistent cries for liberation in the jazz world has been to break out of the confines of the 32-bar song form and to get away from the predictability of arrangements which follow the sequence of head, solo and shout variations, and recap of the head.” Brookmeyer practices what he preaches: for the past 30 years, in a remarkable body of original music for the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, his own New Art Orchestra, and others, Brookmeyer has been in the forefront of composers seeking to move jazz composition beyond its popular-music origins. In this sense, he makes a distinction between “jazz composer” and “jazz songwriter”.
However, jazz composition, like jazz itself, defies convenient pigeonholing. Gil Evans mostly required someone else’s theme to jumpstart his immense creativity. Once begun, though, his writing was sufficiently radical and transformative that it went beyond conventional arranging into composition. Thelonious Monk wrote 70-some song-form-based pieces. But themes like “Trinkle Tinkle” and “Four in One” are certainly not songs in anything but structure; rather, they are instrumental works.
As for another of your points, a friend of mine, composer-arranger-producer Bob Belden, has humorously observed that “many contemporary jazz composers write tunes that sound like second-trumpet parts.” Such tunes often sound to me as if the harmonies were conceived first and melodies (such as they are) afterward. One of the best comments I’ve ever heard on this subject comes from a master, Johnny Mandel: “A good song will stand up a cappella; a bad song will not.”
You also mention Wynton Marsalis’s BLACK CODES (FROM THE UNDERGROUND) as “the DEFINING small-group album of the last 30 years.” I regard that as a hyperbolic statement, though I agree that it’s one of his best albums. A jazz musician whose writing I recommend highly is the Cologne-based pianist-composer-arranger Florian Ross (b. 1972). Since the mid-1990s, Ross has recorded a remarkable series of CDs, with music for piano trios, quintets, string orchestra (with Dave Liebman as soloist), brass ensemble, woodwind ensemble, and big band. I think that Ross is one of the most gifted jazz musicians under age 50, and a composer-arranger of rare talent. Check him out.
Hope my comments are useful to you. Keep on keepin’ on!
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