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.

5. Miho Hazama and m_unit: Time River (Sunnyside, 2015)

5. Miho Hazama and m_unit: <em>Time River</em> (Sunnyside, 2015)
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Past attempts to incorporate strings into jazz big bands have tended to end up either mired in syrup, tacked-on, or inaudible. (Sometimes all three.) Miho Hazama, a Tokyo native now living and working in New York, has somehow managed to skirt all of those pitfalls with her 13-piece m_unit. Four of those 13 pieces are a full string quartet, which mixes into the fabric of the ensemble as naturally as if such configurations were a given in large-ensemble jazz. The band also includes French horn and vibraphone (and, on “Under the Same Moon,” Gil Goldstein’s accordion), increasing its exotic palette and brilliantly hued harmony. With all that at Hazama’s disposal, though, she never neglects to find a deep pocket, with thrusting rhythms on “Dizzy Dizzy Wildflower” and “Magdalena” and graceful flotations on “Cityscape” and “Time River.” Hazama and m_unit rank among the most exciting new music of the 2010s.

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.