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.
Pianist/saxophonist Gordon Goodwin takes a lot of flak from traditionalists in the 2010s in the same way that Miles Davis took it in the 1980s. For a lot of the same reasons too: His compositions and arrangements are funky and electric; he’s not terribly beholden to swing; he’s unashamed about appealing to pop sensibilities (the guy scores Disney movies! How trustworthy can he be?); and worst of all, he’s a millionaire. However, he’s also enormously popular with high-school and college student musicians and their teachers for all those reasons. Oh, and one other: Because he’s a helluva lot of fun. As it happens, the Life in the Bubble album swings as hard as any band on this list (if not more so in many instances). Based on the West Coast, the Big Phat Band includes unimpeachable jazz players like trumpeter Wayne Bergeron, trombonist Andy Martin, and saxophonist Eric Marienthal—but also blues guitarist Andrew Synowiec, who has a flashy feature on “Synolicks.” Enjoyable as Goodwin’s original compositions are, his best stuff is often in his arrangements, like the fusion take on the theme from Get Smart. Hard as purists may scoff, Goodwin’s work is incredibly enjoyable.