Sunday, May 10, 2009

Diggin' the big bands

As much as I like the classic small combos of Miles Davis or Art Blakey, big bands can really get me excited. I haven't played in a large band setting since college, but being part of such a big, noisy machine is a powerful experience.
Big bands are pretty rare these days, the costs of maintaining them is just too high. But there are a few -- Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band is one.
Most of the time, you'll find special one or two-date bands assembled and recorded. Gerald Wilson never fails to deliver great music this way.
Recently, I've been listening to some re-issued big bands that I'm really enjoying --- I'm not talking about Basie or Ellington, although they were terrific.
No - we're moving into more modern territory. Compositionally.
For example, remember Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth Big Band? They recorded a couple of fantastic releases. Some of the tracks are like Weather Report -- but with less Joe Zawinul and more horns ... and Jaco bouncing along underneath.
In 2003, trumpeter Randy Brecker led a big band, with brother Michael, recorded a German date released as "Some Skunk Funk" that shows how wonderfully talented the Brecker Brothers were. If their earlier fusion scared you -- don't be put off: this is a marvelous fast-paced, big band outing.
Speaking of fusion: I recently listened to Frank Zappa's "Grand Wazoo," which has all of his trademarks. That is to say, you'll find lots of wooden marimba sounds, bells, incredible harmonies and quirky rhythms that made Zappa Zappa. I know Zappa viewed the Grand Wazoo as a big band for his compositional ideas, but I'm not certain it's got quite enough to really be a big band ... maybe like a nonet, with guitar, bass, synthesizer, drums, tenor and baritone saxes, and always a few other, unexpected surprises. If you haven't listened to The Grand Wazoo, check out "Blessed Relief" or "Eat that Question."

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