By Don Heckman
Full time big bands are in short supply these days. True, the ghost bands, bearing the names of Swing Era leaders tour the arts centers of America. And a few stable ensembles work to keep the instrumentation alive — some as institutional entities (the Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble), some managing on their own (the Maria Schneider Orchestra, the Diva Jazz Orchestra) More often, big jazz bands are ad hoc ensembles, based around a leader, a book of compositions (often arranged or composed by the leader) and an occasional gig.
But, hearing the performance by the Bob Mintzer Big Band Tuesday night at Vibrato Grill Jazz…etc., one couldn’t help but wish that the remarkable, large jazz ensemble instrumentation – the primary American musical collective of the 20th century — could have a far more frequent presence in contemporary musical life.
Saxophonist Mintzer, perhaps most visible as a member of the Yellowjackets, is also a gifted composer arranger, whose charts are frequently played by collegiate and high school jazz ensembles around the country. His Big Band, however – with its cadre of A-list L.A. players — is only a sometime thing, performing on the relatively rare occasions when a club such as Vibrato provides a forum. And the setting for their performance was an impressive visual sight – with the sixteen members of the Band positioned on and off the stage, the four trumpeters on stools at the back of the platform, the four trombonists on chairs in front, and the five saxophonists seated on chairs placed on the floor in front of the stage. Bass, drums and piano were clustered to the side of the full group.
What really mattered, of course, was the music. Mintzer mostly chose original works, some inspired by personal history – “Original People” traced to a job he had at a Pequot Indian casino. “New Rochelle” was a tribute to his home town. He also offered his arrangements of Thad Jones’ ballad “Don’t Ever Leave” and the Billie Holiday classic “Easy Living,” which was done as a feature for Mintzer’s adventurous tenor saxophone.
His arranging style tended to juxtapose unison ensemble passage against each other – at times recalling the work of Bill Holman – while occasionally adding surprisingly dense harmonic passages and sudden, explosive, full band accents. Substantial space was opened for soloists, with Mintzer, alto saxophonist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter John Daversa, pianist John Beasley and drummer Peter Erskine providing particularly impressive outings.
Playing with minimal rehearsal time, the Mintzer Band delivered a crisp, craftsman-like set of performances. At its best, it was a convincing display of the full breadth of musical pleasures that can be produced by a first rate big jazz band. Let’s hope they return to Vibrato soon.