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by Seth Colter Walls

May 16, 2013

Jazz 101: Modern Big Band

by Seth Colter Walls  |  May 16, 2013

Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.

Mid-'50s valve-trombone wizard Bob Brookmeyer had one of the most interesting -- and consequential -- second acts in jazz history. In his subsequent guise as an arranger for the Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra, he helped kick-start the big band tradition that had already shown signs of sputtering, starting in the late 1960s. (The Jones/Lewis Orchestra debuted many Brookmeyer arrangements at their standing Village Vanguard gig; check the album Consummation in particular.)

But Brookmeyer never stayed put for very long, even when enjoying success. As his arrangements gained renown amongst musicians, as well as additional complexity, the composer seemed to quit the field again in the early '80s. For his third act, he returned to the bandstand boasting increased engagement with modern classical textures. And he also debuted a new role: that of teacher. Many of today's big band writers studied with Brookmeyer, from Maria Schneider (whose back catalog sadly has no digital distribution) to the next generation of leaders (like Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck). The sounds that Argue and Hollenbeck merge with big band jazz on their releases -- maybe an LCD Soundsystem quote or a classical-minimalist riff -- may have reflected enthusiasms that Brookmeyer himself would not have shared. But he was a figure who helped open up mainstream, modern big band writing to include such a variety of moods and approaches.

Check the playlist for choice cuts by Brookmeyer and his students, as well as other current bandleaders capable of mounting and maintaining large ensembles. Thanks to AACM giants like Anthony Braxton (see "Composition No. 112") and Muhal Richard Abrams ("Blu Blu Blu"), as well as the big band post-bop of Wynton Marsalis (whose classical fascinations are also in evidence on the album All Rise), big band writing is still capable of real inspiration to this day.

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