Big bands haven't been mainstream for decades, but they're still with us. Alex Stewart's Making the Scene, a fascinating discussion of contemporary big-band music, lists 86 groups based in New York City alone--and Stewart says the list is incomplete. Managing a big band is difficult, and they rarely earn their members a living wage. So why are there so many? Well, jazz musicians often dig the sound—and the challenge of sitting alongside knowledgeable peers while reading new charts. Composer/arrangers love the many voicing options, and sometimes form their own bands just so they can hear what they've written. Darrell Katz chose that option as one of the founders of The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra in 1985. Since then it has performed with some regularity in the Boston area, and this is the most recent of its several CDs.
The band mixes an extraordinary range of styles, from standard blues vocals to the loosely controlled instrumental cacophony of Sun Ra or Sam Rivers. Veteran blues vocalist Mike Finnigan provides one end of that spectrum on three of the 12 tracks. His traditional style would fit well in the Count Basie arrangements that once featured Joe Williams. Depending on your taste, that either means he provides a solid base for the far more adventurous Katz arrangements, or is in jarring conflict with them. I tilt toward the latter camp. Katz may not mind if you feel the same way though, since most of his arrangements seem designed to titillate and challenge complacent ears.
The voice of Rebecca Shrimpton (eight tracks) couldn't be more unlike Finnigan's. While she knows jazz phrasing, even scatting with authority on Ellington's "I Love the Sunrise," her voice is more art song than Basin Street. On Katz's originals she handles oddly wandering melodies with graceful skill. How many singers would take a shot at this Paula Tatarunis lyric while navigating the title song's unexpected melodic turns, "O, I recognized voracities, invaginations, efflorescenses, even lianas, beaks, and pharnyxes."
Soloists reinforce the band's stylistic diversity. "Visiting My Aunties" includes lyrical piano over walking bass, a raucous trombone solo, and passages of free collective improvisation; trumpeter Mike Peipman and altoist Alan Chase are in a satisfying funky groove on "Tough Luck Blues;" and solos on "Red Blue," including Chase's, owe much to free jazz.
Most of today's big band recordings feature skilled ensemble playing, but soloing is seldom at the same level. The 21 musicians in the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra are outstanding in both categories, so there is much to be admired in this release. But whether or not you will enjoy the album will depend primarily on your reaction to Katz's writing and arranging, especially his lavish use of styles seldom heard side-by-side. Fans of traditional big band sounds can safely stay clear. Those looking for more may find it here.