Musical Notes

Big bands: no longer an endangered species
THE CLOSER you look at big bands, the greater the distance from which they look back, never simply themselves but the sum of their place in the history of jazz. Their popularity dates back to the 1920s and whether or not Duke Ellington borrowed the theme of Faure's Sicilienne from Pelleas et Melisande for his 1932 composition "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" - the title at least was prophetic. By the mid-1930s "Swing" was king, and big bands dominated both jazz and popular culture

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).