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.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra’s work on David Bowie’s 2014 single “Sue (or in a Season of Crime)” alone would probably merit them a place on this list. That said, their work under their own name is of tremendous import, and much of it has entered the big-band repertory all around the world. Schneider, too, is deeply rooted in tradition; she studied with Bob Brookmeyer and worked for several years as Gil Evans’ assistant. Those influences are audible, as is Ellington’s, but Schneider has her own way with melody and especially timbre: The Thompson Fields makes perhaps the most imaginative and carefully calibrated use of accordion (courtesy of Gary Versace) in the history of jazz. She also has several powerhouse soloists on hand, notably tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who plays stunningly on “Arbiters of Evolution”), trombonist Ryan Keberle (“The Monarch and the Milkweed”), and Versace, who adds splendid colors just about everywhere.