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The Big Bands Are Back

There once was a time when the big bands accounted for a surge in jazz music’s popularity, the likes of which we will never see again. The economical landscape of the ’30, ‘40s and ‘50s was quite different from the current era of high inflation and diminishing returns. It is only on rare occasions then that today’s jazz musician finds himself (or herself, in the case of Maria Schneider) able to wield large ensembles and when it does occur it’s usually in the form of a special one-shot offering or a recording session. Of this rare vintage, the tail end of 2002 brings us three very special big band recordings that not only maintain the tradition but extend it as well.

Pianist Andrew Hill’s music has always been about the complex interaction of his advanced harmonic knowledge with a multifaceted sense of rhythmic density. Although his piano work is distinguished by its highly orchestral nature, it’s been his writing for larger ensembles that has always been the most dramatic, such as with his Blue Note classic Point of Departure. Very much in this lineage is his sophomore effort for the Palmetto label, A Beautiful Day (Palmetto). Recorded live at New York’s Birdland in January, Hill’s works for a 16-piece ensemble come off with the same impression of dramatic abandon that marked the pianist/composer as an iconoclast back in the ‘60s.

All eight of the compositions featured are Hill originals and they are dense works chock-a-block with rhythmic and harmonic intricacies. Swing in the conventional sense is not what it’s all about, instead there tends to be ebb and flow and an implied beat that often changes many times within the course of a performance. "New Pinnochio," for example, is largely a platform for an extended Hill solo with the horns interjecting angular phrases here and there and drummer Nasheet Waits pounding on his bass drum with what seems like random strokes. Even the funky groove that brings on "Divine Revelation" soon gives way to a more polyrhythmic foundation that brings collective improvisation to the fore.

Hill’s associates are of the upper echelon and have no trouble navigating his jagged charts. A feature for baritone man J.D. Parron, appropriately entitled "J Di," finds the saxophonist engaged in some wild multiphonics and its great to hear Marty Ehrlich’s bass clarinet on "Faded Beauty" pick things up where Dolphy left off back in 1964. Also featured and equally compelling are trumpeters Dave Ballou and Ron Horton and tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy. An important chapter in Hill’s recent development, A Beautiful Day (Palmetto) is not for the faint of heart, but this challenging recital does offer edification to those willing to listen with open ears and an open mind.

Much more conventional than Hill’s set, Dave Holland tackles writing for a big band on What Goes Around (ECM), which finds his current quintet augmented by an additional eight horns. For his program, Holland decided to revisit compositions that previously appeared on earlier recordings. So we get "Shadow Dance" and "First Snow" from Jumpin’ In, "The Razor’s Edge" and "Blues For C.M." from The Razor’s Edge, "Triple Dance" from Triplicate and the title track which appeared on Not For Nothin’. While nothing all that radical takes place in these new incarnations, Holland seizes the opportunity to further flesh out the harmonic implications while allowing ample solo space for most of those on hand.

More so than in the past, drummer Billy Kilson seems to strike the right balance in terms of his support. Tempering his "flashy" approach more so to suit the mood of each piece, his pyrotechnical coaxing of soloists at the peak of their testimonials stands out more by comparison. Steve Nelson’s vibes also set up a rich and contrasting sonority with the brass heavy ensemble, his own spots as resonant and rewarding as ever. As for Holland, he chooses to limit his time in the spotlight to only a few choice moments, instead focusing on holding down the groove and leading the band.

Over the course of about and hour and a quarter, Holland and his men play with purpose and enthusiasm. Gary Smulyan’s bop inflected joie de vivre speaks volumes on "Upswing" and Alex Sipiagin on "First Snow" reveals a dark and brooding quality that follows in the tradition of former Holland quintet member Kenny Wheeler. Sound stage and separation are excellent without Holland’s bass taking on the pronounced boominess that has often marred his recent quintet albums. In the final analysis, this is a great change of pace for Holland, as well as being one of the stronger releases of 2002.

More known on their home turf than abroad, John Fedchock’s New York Big Band has nonetheless earned numerous critical accolades for their appearances and two previous releases for the Reservoir label (New York Big Band and On the Edge). For further evidence of the band’s excellence and personality, the newly released No Nonsense (Reservoir) is an aptly titled 71 minutes of swinging big band charts in the tradition of the Thad and Mel band of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As a writer and arranger, Fedchock finds new routes to familiar and time-honored places with enough variety to satisfy all but the most jaded listeners. In terms of his trombone style, he often exhibits a fire and advanced harmonic knowledge in league with Conrad Herwig, but with possibly more of a romantic and melodic bent akin to the work of Bob Brookmeyer.

A real flag waver, the title track gets things off to a sunny start, followed closely by the medium tempo swing of "Big Bruiser." Freddie Hubbard’s seldom-performed "Eclipse" is a lush ballad forum for Fedchock, who speaks in long phrases and sagaciously uses space to his advantage. By contrast, Joe Henderson’s "Caribbean Fire Dance" is a Latin-tinged groover with percussionist Bobby Sanabria adding some extra color. Utilizing the type of cross section voicings that Thad Jones made popular, "Tricotism" not only features bassist Lynn Seaton but also moves along at a nice medium swing. As for the rest, Scott Robinson’s baritone sax makes a version of "Come Sunday" something to savor, as is also the case with two more choice Fedchock originals, "Eleven Nights" and "Blue After Two." Worth checking out, No Nonsense (Reservoir) should be welcomed by big band enthusiasts of all persuasions, while hopefully bringing Fedchock and his cohorts even more recognition.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Andrew Hill, Dave Holland, John Fedchock
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