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.
To be a “modern” big band does not mean severing connections to the tradition. Pianist Orrin Evans is a hard-swinging cat who translates that assurance into music for a massive 20-piece orchestra. The Captain Black Big Band drips with soul: gospel and blues, moody ballads, charging and even danceable grooves. There’s also plenty of bebop language, along with subtle hints of pan-African motif (an Evans specialty) and an undisguised Ellingtonian touch on “Dita.” At the same time, Evans is thoroughly contemporary in his use of reeds (though some of the credit for that goes to band members like saxophonist Todd Bashore and trombonist David Gibson, who contribute arrangements) and the energy of the rhythm section. And he tackles contemporary issues, as in the sadly all-too-relevant “Prayer for Columbine.”