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By Josef Woodard
From Bowie to funk, recent releases display the breadth of the contemporary large ensemble.
Jazz big band culture has, by now, come into its own as a landscape of stylistic variables. Recent releases of large ensemble projects demonstrate this truism: Big band is not a “genre” but a “medium,” and a malleable one at that.
Vince Mendoza, for example, represents a European-influenced sensibility in his poetically powerful big band thinking, while geographical distinctions color Los Angeleno Doug McDonald’s charts and Bill Warfield embraces an easy-does-it New York City state of mind. And then, filling the niche of large ensemble tributes to artists we might not expect, the Metropolitan Jazz Octet folds the big band tapestry around the music of David Bowie. Our ears stretch accordingly.
Just as Bowie’s innate jazz leanings were tapped on his final album, Black Star — with the help of jazz artists Donny McCaslin and Maria Schneider — the jazz properties of his writing weave into the sonic fabric of the Chicago-based Metropolitan Jazz Octet’s The Bowie Project (Origin). Results are mixed, depending on one’s allegiance to Bowie’s distinctive personal aesthetic. Jim Gailloreto’s fresh-brained arrangements and vocalist Paul Marinaro’s clear, strong vocals impress, but can unduly soften and water down Bowie’s ingrained edge and irony, making popular items “Changes,” “Let’s Dance” and “Life on Mars” sound too suave — at times even too lounge-y — for their own good. But lesser-known tunes, such as “Quicksand” and “I Would Be Your Slave,” shine in a new light.
Trumpeter Warfield’s latest project with his Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra goes by the apt title of Time Capsule (Planet Arts). Selections contain autobiographical references linked to his personal musical timeline of influences, beyond standard big band repertoire. The funk factor finds expression in a pumping take on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat/I Got the Feeling,” and in the more pop-soul turn of “Just My Imagination,” one of a few tunes featuring vocalist Chrissi Poland. Warfield also dresses ’70s fusion — Return to Forever’s “Light As a Feather” and Weather Report/Joe Zawinul’s ode to Miles Davis, “Man in a Green Shirt” — in personalized big band garb.
Los Angeles-based guitarist Doug MacDonald, a veteran of multiple contexts and ensembles, has gone big for his debut in the large ensemble format, Big Band Extravaganza (DMac Music.) Apart from a fresh arrangement of the Gershwins’ classic “But Not for Me,” all material was penned by MacDonald, tapping into various mainstream jazz modes. The album kicks off with the laid-back swing of “Toluca Lake Jazz” (named for a spot in Burbank once frequented by the Johnny Carson era Tonight Show Band), travels through the easygoing Braziliana of “Rashomon” and concludes with the suavely propulsive “Ya Know Bill.” With a starry cast including tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard (no relation to your correspondent), altoist Kim Richmond and pianist Bill Cunliffe, MacDonald’s ensemble adds a new dimension to L.A.’s well-established straightahead big band culture.
Vince Mendoza also hails from Los Angeles, but has had a healthy interactive relationship with Europe’s finest big bands over many years, including the Dutch Metropole Orkest. Mendoza’s latest release, Olympians (Modern), is a retrospective of his work with the stellar ensemble. It also reveals Mendoza’s sophistication, an internationalist’s incorporation of influences from Europe and Latin America/Brazil, from “Quixote” to “Partido Alto” and the finale, “Bright Lights and Jubilations.” A luminous guest list includes Chris Potter, with his elegant tenor sax turn on “Barcelona”; alto saxophonist David Binney burning in his signature way on “Lake Fire”; and vocalists Dianne Reeves and Cécile McLorin-Salvant, whose intelligent approaches to their art are duly respected in “Esperanto” and “House of Reflections,” respectively. Serving as a fine primer to the Mendoza/Metropole body of work, this is one of the year’s best big band outings.
Featured photo by Reinout Bos.