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Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra: Big Band Treasures, Live

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Although justified by an admirable desire to preserve in live performance classic jazz arrangements from the past, the very concept of repertory orchestras has been under assault from various quarters ever since the inception of the movement in the 1970s. Collectors whose shelves and memories were both already well-stocked questioned the relevancy of verbatim reiterations of long familiar recorded performances, while musicians of both veteran status and recent ambitions were equally nonplussed by the notion of unabashed, flagrant imitation. What purpose, they asked, was being served by the note-for-note replication of arrangements and, in many cases, improvised solos as well, when expertly remastered reissues of the original recordings were in current and thriving circulation and presumably within the grasp of all interested parties? The answer was and still is, quite obviously, that not everyone out there owns all of the source recordings or even knows of their existence. Furthermore, among this large group of people there may very well be thousands of potential converts to the cause. It would not be the first time that imitations have led the curious back to primary sources. But perhaps most important was director Gunther Schuller’s conviction that great jazz is best appreciated in live performance, hence, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra’s commitment to nationwide touring and broadcasting, a joint endeavor in practice for the past five years.

The 20 tracks in this collection were recorded over a four-year period at concerts staged in Washington, D.C. and, accordingly, employ the talents of far too many musicians to mention here by name, but perhaps a few of the more familiar soloists, such as Loren Schoenberg, Dick Hyman, Joe Wilder, Virgil Jones, Britt Woodman, Sam Burtis, Jerry Dodgion, Billy Pierce, Gary Smulyan, and Sir Roland Hanna, will suffice. Conducted variously by Schuller and David Baker, the orchestra rightfully devotes most of its presentation to Duke Ellington (“Sepia Panorama,” “Echoes Of Harlem,” “Raincheck,” “Isfahan,” “Gypsy Without A Song,” and “The Mooche”), with the remaining performances divided among Billy Strayhorn (“Cashmere Cutie”), Harlan Leonard (“Hairy Joe Jump”), Claude Hopkins (“Mystic Moan”), Cab Calloway (“Evenin'”), James P. Johnson (“Carolina Shout,” in a solo by Hyman), Jimmie Lunceford (“Blue Blazes”), Lionel Hampton (“Oh, Lady Be Good,” “Jay Bird” and “Million Dollar Smile”), Miles Davis (“Boplicity”) Harry James (“The Mole”), Artie Shaw (“Evensong”), Boyd Raeburn (“Tonsilectomy”) and Dizzy Gillespie (“Swedish Suite”).

Understandably, the diversity of the styles covered, not to mention the highly differentiated orchestral timbres and methods of articulation and phrasing employed by the original sections and soloists placed a heavy burden of responsibility on both the conductors and the members of the SMJO. However, the result is one of which all concerned may feel proud.