Recently I spoke to John Lee, bassist and co-producer for the album by the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. We talked about the three original Gillespie tunes that appear on this CD, why the band was originally formed and his personal encounters with the late jazz master.
There are three original Gillespie songs on the album, "Con Alma", "Blue ’N Boogie" and "Tour de Force." Lee says, "We are still playing some of the older arrangements because Dizzy’s music is so unique. It is so unlike any other band’s music. It is more solo-oriented and the charts are so bebop based." He makes the point that the element of bebop and the opportunity for soloists is much more pronounced in Gillespie’s music than his contemporaries such as Count Bassie or Duke Ellington. "It was unique at the time and it is still unique," he says.
"A few years ago we had to make a conscious decision that we can’t just keep playing these old charts," Lee says. "We are adding new arrangements now. Some of them are on Dizzy’s tunes and some are on tunes of that era, but they have a more modern sensibility to them," he adds.
"You can play and play and get as tight as you want to be, but it still comes down to the arrangers. If you don’t have great arrangements, it is going to be what it is going to be," notes Lee. He gives credit to Dennis Mackrel, musical director Slide Hampton, Ernie Wilkins and Jimmy Heath for creating the arrangements that have given a new face to some old tunes heard on Dizzy’s Business.
The album was recorded live at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. You can hear the audience respond spontaneously to the wonderful solos of Randy Brecker (trumpet), Slide Hampton (trombone) and Jay Ashby (trombone) as they blow on "Tour de Force." The closing track "Off Minor" also features solos by Mulgrew Miller (piano), Greg Gisbert (trumpet) and Gary Smulyan (baritone saxophone). Once again the audience shows their appreciation at several junctures. In fact, many of the songs on Dizzy’s Business feature fine instrumental solos.
The sultry voiced Italian singer, Roberta Gambarini, provides a breathtaking rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s "Stardust." The Boston Globe has referred to Gambarini as "a true successor to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae." The dark haired beauty came to John Lee's and Slide Hampton’s attention while they were working in Lee’s New Jersey-based studio one day. During a break, a friend said he had something that he wanted them to hear. "He played Roberta doing "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and she scatted Sonny Rollins and Dizzy’s solos," he says.
Gambarini took a gig in Europe during 2002 and as fate would have it, Hampton was hired as the arranger. Hampton put together six arrangements for Gambarini. Three of those arrangements appear on Dizzy’s Business: "Blue ‘N Boogie," the aforementioned "Stardust" and "Morning of the Carnival." She teams up with James Moody as the duo scat on "Blue ‘N Boogie." It is, however, the ninth track, "Moody’s Groove," where Gambarini raises the ante and you realize she has unparalleled vocals. Lee refers to adding Gambarini to the All-Star Big Band as the vocalist as being "a no brainer."
While Gambarini is a relative newcomer to the Big Band, having joined in 2004, Lee’s journey down the Dizzy road began in 1984. Lee who co-founded the All-Star Big Band and also serves as the executive director recalls, "I had met Dizzy different times over the years. When he called me about going to work for him, I was trying to describe who I was not realizing that Dizzy knows 100,000 people. (laughing, he says) When I met him at the airport for the first concert, he pointed me out and said, ‘Oh that’s you.'"
Not long after that eventful day, Gillespie outlined to the then 32-year old Lee an ambitious tour schedule that spanned the next eighteen months. "I looked at it and there was a Caribbean cruise, tours of India, Europe, Japan, South America and all over the States in prestigious halls," says Lee. Gillespie wanted to know if Lee was coming onboard. Looking back Lee refers to it as the beginning of nine wonderful years performing with Gillespie.
"Over the years, I developed multiple relationships with (him). He was my boss; he was like a father figure. He was a friend too, so I always felt those three distinctly different relationships with him," says Lee. "Dizzy was such a remarkable human being. He had a way of making everybody feel important. He was always there for everybody in the band whether it was a musical question or just a particular life question. He was always available for us on all those different levels without judging," he says.
During the last few years of Gillespie’s life, Lee took on a bigger role handling a lot of the business issues. It is not surprising then that about one year after Gillespie’s death, Lee was approached by Boo Frazier, a relative of Dizzy’s and by Lorraine Willis Gillespie, his widow, to form a band that would continue the great one’s legacy.
"I said, 'Well we can’t do it without Dizzy. Who would be Dizzy?' We conceived a college program called Dizzy;The Man and the Music. It was a multi-media program where we would bring films, slides and go into colleges and use Dizzy’s very specific teaching methods about teaching bebop and jazz," recalls Lee.
In 1996, calls began to come in for the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Band to perform at festivals and clubs. In 1998, The Blue Note in New York City gave the band their first regular gig.
Although it is challenging finding gigs for a band with this many musicians, Lee feels the audience’s investment is well worth it. "(When) you get that many musicians playing all together and with great arrangements there is nothing like it. We go with quartets, quintets and septets all the time, but to have 18 guys playing great arrangements in that traditional formation that they came up with years ago is still so great," he says.
Lee took a moment to reflect positively on the direction that jazz and in particular big band music is taking today. He calls Maria Schneider "a great writer" and along with Dave Holland and Bob Mintzer "are progressing the art form." Lee sees a bright future for the renaissance in the popularity of big band music.
Lee counts himself fortunate to have developed so many close friendships over the years, including Slide Hampton who he first toured with during his days with Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Brecker to whom he refers as "one of my oldest friends," and Steve Davis (trombone) who he met through the All-Star Big Band.
"This band has really developed into a family. Everybody loves each other and they just enjoy seeing each other. The young guys have to pinch themselves every morning that they are playing with Jimmy Heath, (James) Moody, Slide (Hampton) and Randy (Brecker). As the old guys came out they are feeling the same way about playing with the younger guys," says Lee.