Big bands: no longer an endangered species
Monday 05 July 1999
It was a period that has exerted a powerful influence on both the sound and structure of the larger ensemble in jazz to the extent that today, any innovation appears as an expansion of the tradition rather than a leap into the future. But with the death in the 1980s of such famous bandleaders as Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Gil Evans, big bands seemed an endangered species. The main reason was money. High head counts quickly ran up bills that in the cost- conscious 1990s would give any bean-counter dyspepsia.
Yet big bands have always exerted a powerful allure, the powerful dualism of the individuality of the soloist threatened by the ensemble, the struggle of man versus machine. Balancing the putative opposites of orchestration and individual freedom has, over the years, produced startling results. The challenge, of course, is to find new ways to achieve this end, a Mallory- like preoccupation that continues to occupy musicians because it is always there.
Today, there is no shortage of "rehearsal bands", ensembles where like- minded musical craftsmen gather to sharpen their musical skills by reaffirming old truths, but with just one or two exceptions that prove the rule, big bands no longer seemed to be creating the waves they used to. Until recently, that is. Colin Towns, a composer for films and television (Full Circle, Our Friends in the North, Brother Cadfael etc), suddenly decided to realise a long-held ambition and form his own jazz big band.
Playing his own ambitious arrangements, Towns' Mask Orchestra was immediately hailed as one of the most refreshing surprises in British jazz. His latest album, Dreaming Man With Blue Suede Shoes (Provocateur Records PVC 1017) contains some of the most convincing writing for a big band incorporating strings since Robert Graettinger turned heads with Stan Kenton in 1948.
Then last year, Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) formed his own big band. Needless to say, the rock press were a bit baffled by Genesis arrangements hurtling towards them at 500mph and reacted with predictable ho-hums. Yet unless Collins' recent album A Hot Night In Paris (WEA 3984 27221-2) is situated in the context of the Pete Meyers, Bill Reddie arrangements for the Buddy Rich band, it's impossible to tell where Collins is coming from. Where he's coming from is a love of big bands in general and the Buddy Rich Orchestra in particular.
Collins, to his credit, does not try and emulate Rich, preferring a less- is-more ethic impressive for its discretion. Live, the band have an unnerving habit of veering into lite-jazz, but fortunately not on his album, which captures something of the essence of the coiled-spring intensity of the Rich band. Both Towns and Collins are old enough to know better. They know big bands cost a fortune, yet they've gone ahead and done it because they can afford it, and we're the richer for it.
If you add Mike Westbrook into the equation, who can't afford it, but goes ahead when subsidy permits, then suddenly Britain has three of the finest big bands in contemporary jazz. Westbrook's recent Orchestra of Smith's Academy (Enja ENJ 9358-2) contains a re-imagining of Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" which he calls "I.D.M.A.T". It numbers among his best work, and illustrates just how timeless big bands apparently are.
Stuart Nicholson is the author of `A Portrait of Duke Ellington: reminiscing in tempo' (Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 20).
- 2 This letter from a reader explains why women can’t play football
- 4 Scientists predict green energy revolution after incredible new graphene discoveries
- 5 Obama: The only people with the right to object to immigration are Native Americans
Black Friday 2014: Opening times for Asda, John Lewis, GAME, PC World and Argos
Miss Honduras Maria Jose Alvarado's stylist Luis Alfredo Garcia is found stabbed to death
Sean Abbott: Messages of support flood in for bowler following death of batsman Phil Hughes
Kim Jong-un proves 'in dire need of allies' within his own government as younger sister appointed to senior role
Dr Lam Hoe Yeoh: Voyeur doctor jailed for eight years after using network of hidden cameras to film patients, colleagues and friends on the toilet
Ukip says babies born to immigrants in the UK should be classed as migrants – which would include Nigel Farage’s own children
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Tamir Rice: 12-year-old boy playing with fake gun dies after being shot by Ohio police
Rochester aftermath: Sacking of Emily Thornberry will make work of Labour MPs '10 times harder'
£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...
£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...
VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...