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.

8. Snarky Puppy: Culcha Vulcha (GroundUP, 2016)

8. Snarky Puppy: <em>Culcha Vulcha</em> (GroundUP, 2016)
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Okay, they do tend to cross over into straight funk and jam-band territory. Nevertheless, Snarky Puppy is tremendously responsible for the revival of jazz fusion, for better and for worse. The very big band—frankly, attempting to count members is useless—will play any kind of groove, with as many layers and shifts in directions as it takes to get you moving. “Semente” manages to incorporate Balkan rhythms, classical voicings, and bebop soloing; Snarky Puppy then turns completely around and piles up electronic textures on “Beep Box” and straight ’70s fusion throwback on “Big Ugly.” The mix of horns, reeds, keyboards acoustic and electric, umpteen kinds of guitar and percussion, and even violin can indeed get exhausting … but it’s a blissful, butt-shaking kind of exhaustion.

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.