JazzTimes 10: Great Modern Big-Band Recordings

From Maria Schneider to John Hollenbeck and beyond

We all know that the big bands never went away. These days, however, they’re having enough of a moment that the New York Times published an article about it at the start of this year. In the 21st century, a large jazz ensemble is less about generating fodder for dancing (though there are certainly big bands that pursue that end) and more about ambitious compositions and arrangements. If the bands below have anything in common—aside from the obvious—it’s certainly ambition.

Actually, they have a few more things in common. With two exceptions, the bands below all made their debuts after 2000. The outliers are included because of their outsize influence. They also have all released recordings; much as we would have liked to include Igmar Thomas’ Revive Big Band (an exciting project, to say the least), they have yet to drop their long-awaited first album. There are many others that didn’t make the cut, but we hope those that did will give you a sense of the depth and richness of the current big-band jazz landscape.

1. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: Infernal Machines (New Amsterdam, 2009)

1.  Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: <em> Infernal Machines</em> (New Amsterdam, 2009)
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Infernal Machines is hardly representative of Argue’s compositional approach, which in the decade since this debut has turned sharply toward conceptual epics (and multimedia presentations). But the composer/conductor is so fruitful with ideas that no one work could represent him, and Infernal Machines may best capture the sheer diversity of his writing. It also retains the freshness that was so stunning on its release. It’s beset with energy, hipness, and even textures that suggest the indie-rock world (like the snarling “Phobos”) and contemporary classical music, yet it’s also filled with new twists on the jazz language (as on the sublime “Redeye”). Of course it’s not just the composer who vivifies Infernal Machines; musicians including saxophonist Sam Sadigursky, trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Nadje Noordhuis, guitarist Sebastian Noelle, and drummer/percussionist Jon Wikan help take the music to another level.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.