Ted Nash is justly renowned for his sweeping, set-piece orchestrations. He came out of L.A., the son and nephew of musicians who played in big bands and on movie soundtracks, settled in as an ace arranger under Wynton Marsalis for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and has subsequently mounted big-band projects that have been nominated for a Grammy (Portrait in Seven Shades, 2011) or won one (Presidential Suite, 2017).
But Nash is nearly as accomplished, and a lot more fun, working on the fly in smaller ensembles, a fact he seems to embrace on Live at Dizzy’s. You don’t enlist vibraphonist Warren Wolf and pianist Gary Versace unless you want to play around, and with Matt Wilson on drums beside bassist Rufus Reid, you enhance the rewards of every risk. You make yourself the only horn, and feature the flute and clarinet more than in your typical sax-centric regimen. Then you book three nights in an intimate club and make your first live recording in more than 25 years.
Three of the seven songs pay tribute to departed composers. “Organized Crime,” Nash’s nod to Ornette Coleman, captures his beguiling, dilapidated swing. Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” is deconstructed, paced down to a near-reggae stutter, and then gracefully stilt-walked up into a measured glide. And Herbie Nichols’ “Spinning Song” displays the jagged lyricism and soulful whimsy that are among his distinctive virtues.
In different ways, the other four songs are crowd-pleasers. The blend of Nash’s rich flute with Wolf’s vibes injects a sun-kissed warmth into Chick Corea’s “Windows.” Johnny Mandel inscribed a score of “Emily” to Nash after his daughter of that name was born; now Emily is Eli, and Nash salutes the courage of his son’s transformation on a clarinet/piano duet with Versace. “Sisters,” an original meant to approximate the kinetic energy of kids, burns brilliantly, and Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” is a light-hearted boogaloo romp. No Grammys here, one suspects, but loads of supple musicianship in service to a good time.