Big bands, though enjoying a vogue thanks to the neo-swing revival, survive because they're unique forums challenging both arrangers and players. For the former, the trick lies in formalizing notated structures surging with sounds of surprise. For the latter, the gauntlet is twofold, to play one's written part with panache, and then when the spotlight narrows, to improvise with an Žlan at once personal but also appropriate to the chart's overall design.
For the stylistically diverse NDR (North German Radio) Big Band, the balance between notation and improvisation has been a long-standing and nuanced affair in which the ensemble has adroitly accommodated a parade of stellar guests. Here, in the follow-up to Bravissimo (1996), and again in celebration of NDR's 50th anniversary, we get a retrospective sampling of 13 outstanding concerts from 1973 to 1997.
Among the diverse NDR treasures are John Surnam's soaring soprano in "Carpet Ride," Karin's Krog's smoky vocal on 'Round Midnight," the poignant tandem of Gary Burton's vibes and Christof Lauer's tenor on Michael Gibb's "Mosher," Philip Catherine's searing guitar in "Piano Groove," and Herb Geller's fiery alto with "After You've Gone." Kudos to all, to the inspired soloists, to pianist/music director Dieter Glawischnig, and to the NDR all-stars.