Music Monday: Big Bands for a Big Book?

This weekend, I spent some time listening the big jazz bands. When I first started out listening to jazz, I enjoyed the sound of Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s band and some of the other iconic jazz orchestras. That said, I never really connected with them and even iconic recorded performances of these groups rarely found their way into my regular rotation. Maybe I had become too invested in small ensemble jazz, hard and post-bop standards, or even the easy to discern interplay between musicians? 

At some point, Mingus and some of his large ensembles forced their way into my play list. Starting with Mingus, Ah, Um (1959) and then Blues and Roots (1960), and finally The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963). At around the same time, I had started listening Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961) and then his orchestra work from the early-1960s and George Russell’s two great albums Jazz in the Space Age (1960) and Ezz-thetics (1961). The latter might not quite qualify as “big band,” but the former certainly is. It goes without saying that any music that evokes the sound of the space age naturally leads to Sun Ra, but I suppose I’ve blogged enough about Sun Ra lately for a while

This particular line of listening passed through the late-1960s and the wonderful Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra performances Live at the Village Vanguard (1967), the amazing Central Park North (1969), and the remarkable Consumption (1969). 

These albums are just so good, but they didn’t really prepare me for my final destination of my listening this week.

First, I returned to the Liberation Music Orchestra eponymous first album from 1970 and caught up with Carla Bley (who had recorded with George Russell between Jazz in the Space Age and Ezz-thetics). This album is the perfect balance between tight orchestration and improvisation, order and chaos, and represents the struggle for liberation as a vehicle for freedom and the foundation for new forms of social organization. Music like this deserves to be the soundtrack for a reading of Wengrow and Graeber’s Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), which I blogged about here. If you’re going to read BIG BOOKS, you might as well listen to BIG BANDS, right?

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For a long book like this, however, you certainly need more than one album. It seems that Phil Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble’s Spanish Suite (1968) complements the LMO’s Spanish inflected scores and embraces a similar spirit of community. I blogged on Cohran’s Artistic Heritage Ensemble here.

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After listening to this, I revisited Horace Tapscott and his Pan-African Peoples Arkestra, Live at the I.U.C.C. from 1979. The groove is deep on this album and the improvisation is brilliant. Every track on this live album reward multiple listens and if you don’t feel the soul of a community here and its potential to liberate and redeem, then you can probably disregard the rest of the recommendations on this post.

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Finally, I leapt into the 21st century and listened to the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Data Lords (2020). Schneider’s intense concern with the role of the digital in our society and its potential for limiting the freedom that is present in nature permeates the compositions. That the album was released via ArtistShare, a crowd-funding platform that allows individuals to become investors in large scale creative projects, offers a 21st-century view of the kind of community building that folks like Sun Ra, Phil Cohran, and Horace Tapscott put at the heart of their music.  

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By the end of my long weekend, I had become all the more convinced that the big band remains a vital platform for articulating the ubiquitous tension between order and individualism, structure and chaos, and freedom and responsibility. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that my growing appreciation of this kind of music stems from the prominence of these tensions in our world today.

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