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.

7. Fire! Orchestra: Ritual (Rune Grammofon, 2016)

7. Fire! Orchestra: <em>Ritual</em> (Rune Grammofon, 2016)
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The (mostly) Scandinavian Fire! Orchestra upends just about every big-band trope there is. Their rhythm section holds down the front of the bandstand, not the side or back, and it comprises two drummers, two guitarists, two keyboardists (one of whom doubles on violin), and a bassist. Brass (including French horn and tuba), woodwinds (including two slide saxes), and Andreas Berthling’s laptop all share the back line. And that’s just the “slimmed-down” 21-piece version that plays on Ritual, cut back from its prior 29-piece configuration. Led by Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, Fire! Orchestra is stacked with Europe’s finest and boldest free-jazz musicians. But the music isn’t free—certainly not in the sense that it’s allowed to kill the band’s hard grooves. On the other hand, in “Ritual, Part 2,” with such a groove firmly in place, the many horns and vocalist Sofia Jernberg absolutely turn themselves loose in a rollicking, screaming mass that just happens to hit all the right accents.

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.