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.
Trumpeter Russell Gunn was far ahead of the curve. He wasn’t the first to attempt that once-elusive hybrid of jazz and hip-hop, but he was among the first to sound unforced and non-synthetic. His 19-piece big band has the same kind of organic feel, as though soul, pop, funk, hip-hop, and jazz were not only insoluble, but had never been otherwise. On Pyramids, the Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra’s second album, he even manages to sneak in some free blowing, with tenor saxophonists Fareed Mahluli and Mike Walton breaking out of the hip-hop groove to duel mightily on “Kabla Khufu.” Elsewhere, Gunn shows his command of grandeur, drama (how better to describe the call-and-response fanfares of “Olmec (Xi)”?), black and pan-African consciousness, and an enormous sonic range to create an astonishing and powerful musical world.