Jazz has a long tradition of brilliant small bands, starting with groups like Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven and extending as far as today’s brilliant Vijay Iyer Trio or the antic quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing.
Jazz also has a proud tradition of large groups, from Jelly Roll Morton Red Hot Peppers to the plethora of brilliant “big bands” that dominated popular music in the ‘30s and ‘40s to…
Well, what about today? What we think of as the classic jazz “big band” isn’t a thriving form today. That kind of group – with four trumpets, three trombones, and five saxophones roaring contrapuntally atop a sleek, swinging rhythm section – reached its first golden era with Ellington, Goodman, Basie and so on, and there were still brilliant big bands through the ‘60s: Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis.
Today, however, what we think of as a “big band” is something different, something less formulaic, a format that is having a very wonderful 2013.
The classic big bands were marvelous, and they had more range than their greatest hits would indicate. Ellington, in particular, stretched the bounds of what the basic 17-piece big band could achieve. His various orchestral suites took advantage of interesting colors: flutes, clarinets, fiddle, muted brass.
But mostly, the big bands had a basic sound, a set of great moves that sustained artistry for decades but begged for expansion. And in recent years that expansion has surged with creativity. The tradition still informs these new bands, but 2013 has brought a wash of stunning new “orchestral jazz” that requires attention.
The discs that have knocked me out lately are marked by larger bands, unusual instrumentation, the inclusion of singing or recitation, and the incorporation of jazz’s post-bop freedoms in such a way that these bands seem unmoored and unbounded, able to reach for the sounds of classical music, rock or soul, soundtrack music – or just about anything else.
Click here to read about great records from John Hollenbeck, Marty Ehrlich, Wadada Leo Smith, and Joel Harrison. Amazing stuff! Big Is Beautiful: Large Bands, Worlds of Sound