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.
As with any project of drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, his Large Ensemble gives one pause before trying to attach even the vaguest descriptor. Is it big-band jazz? Contemporary classical? Avant-garde? Perhaps even … progressive rock? Whatever it is, it’s utterly its own, beautiful and a little strange. Hollenbeck’s reimagining of “Isfahan” (under Billy Strayhorn’s original title, “Elf”) features soprano saxophonist Tony Malaby in snake-charmer mode over brass ensemble parts, tumbling dissonant piano, and God knows how many percussion instruments. That last element is a common one in Hollenbeck’s music; often his drums alone sound like a God-knows-how-many. (Witness his playing on the head-scratcher “from trees.”) Still, oddities like his self-consciously bloated take on Kraftwerk’s “The Model” give way to genuinely affecting music, never more so than on the poignant “All Can Work,” with the haunting voice of singer Theo Bleckmann becoming a seamless part of the ensemble.