Those who love big band jazz have slim pickins these days. Other than the excellent Dave Holland Big Band that had graced the Kennedy Center stage a couple of weeks earlier, since Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin called it quits last year, there is not much going on apart from the ghost orchestras (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie), the retro experiments at Lincoln Center, occasional recordings by such as Gerald Wilson, and local groups such as Carol Sudhalter's Astoria Big Band
. The Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All-Star Big Band offers some small relief, and some interesting solutions. First of all, the group combines younger players with seasoned veterans to keep the sound reasonably contemporary. (I wondered if Antonio Hart was intimidated sitting between Frank Wess and James Moody, for example. His response was to blow everyone away with his solo on Night In Tunisia
.) Secondly, they mix up the material; some of the selections, Manteca, Woody'n You, Tunisia,
are directly associated with Dizzy, but not all of them. We heard Dennis Mackrel's arrangement of Thelonious Monk's Off Minor
as well as Louis Bonfa's beautiful Bossa Nova Manha De Carnival
The key to all of this is the musical director and for this group the responsibility has been given to another distinguished veteran, trombonist Slide Hampton. It is he who must negotiate between the extremes of tradition and innovation to keep the group fresh and on this evening's evidence he is doing a pretty good job. His arrangements are always interesting, with plenty of room for the soloists, he contributes some pithy trombone solos, and he leads the group and does the MC duties with a gracious good humor.
There were several highlights for me. It is always great to hear from Wess and Moody, who traded flute solos on Manteca
, Jimmy Heath was fine on his one tenor outing on Woody'n You
(it is truly an all-star group when a Jimmy Heath gets one solo in an evening!), and Smulyan's gruff baritone, featured on Off Minor
, is always interesting, as are Brecker and Miller who also negotiated Monk's changes with aplomb. All the trombonists got an outing on Woody'n You
, along with Moody on tenor and Wess on alto, and Ashby and Lee stepped forward on guitar and bass respectively during the Tunisian finale. And Antonio Hart continues to impress me whenever I hear him.
The final element that added a real polish to the all star's recital was the vocal work of Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini. She added her impeccable intonation and unfailing sense of swing to When Lights Are Low
after an impressionistic introduction featuring Hart, Wess, Moody and Heath on flutes, and a lovely Manha De Carnival
which she sang in Portuguese over a flute obbligato. She is very classy and left me wanting more.
Actually the whole evening ended too quickly; as the last echoes of Night In Tunisia
faded away, Hampton made it clear that they had no encore, at least for that performance, in spite of a generous ovation. For the sake of the big band tradition let's hope there are some future encores in store.