By Don Heckman
It sounded like a good idea. Big Band Jazz night at the Hollywood Bowl. Lacking a resident ensemble such as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, L.A.’s fans of big band jazz are generally limited to hearing large ensemble sounds on occasional Monday nights at the clubs. (And we can be grateful for the fact that Vitello’s, Vibrato, Steamers, Charlie O’s and a few other places continue to make it possible for us to do so.)
Wednesday night’s program at the Bowl was a rare big band presentation at a large venue, with a program that crossed from the classic (the Count Basie Orchestra) to the contemporary (the Dave Douglas Big Band and the Dave Holland Big Band). But its promise was often wrapped in disappointing results – and not always because of the efforts of the musicians themselves.
Start with what worked. The Basie band has been one of the jazz world’s great ensembles, even over the course of the 26 years since Basie himself passed away. With the advantage of a great book of music, most of it instantly memorable, and the careful selection of first-rate players, their performances reach well beyond nostalgia into high voltage musical excitement. Prompted by Bill Hughes at the helm, the band ripped through such classics as “Shiny Stockings,” “Blues In Hoss’ Flat,” “Li’l Darlin’,” and “April in Paris.” The soloing, especially from trumpeter Scotty Barnhart was first rate. And vocalist Carmen Bradford – a veteran of nine years with the band when Basie himself was at the keyboard – delivered a pair of dramatic vocals on “Young and Foolish” and “My Shining Hour.”
The opening bands didn’t fare quite as well. The Douglas band, as it turned out, was a kind of hybrid. The compositions were by trumpeter Douglas and he served as front man and principal soloist. But the arrangements and the piano work were by Jim McNeely – who was initially introduced as the “Featured Artist.” In addition, the band included a mixture of players, some from the East Coast some from L.A., including tenor saxophonist, Bob Sheppard, who provided some of the set’s best soloing. Although the music was delivered in efficient fashion, neither the compositions nor the charts possessed any particularly memorable qualities. The sole exception was titled “The Persistence of Memory” – presumably inspired by Salvador Dali’s famous painting, but unmentioned by Douglas in his introduction. Its most appealing aspect, however, was the resemblance it bore to Gil Evans’ arranging style, with Douglas sounding especially Miles Davis-like in his soloing.
Holland’s big band offered a group of generally well-crafted charts, played with a unified feeling heightened by crisp, well-articulated ensemble passages. Add to that some first rate soloing, especially from tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, alto saxophonist Antonio Hart and Holland himself.
But despite their willingness to occasionally reach into daunting contemporary dissonance and brief collective improvising, there were few extraordinary moments in the performances by either the Douglas or the Holland East Coast-based bands. How much more intriguing might it have been to have had one of the unique Southland-based big bands on stage instead: the Bill Holman Orchestra, to suggest an obvious possibility?
It’s also worth mentioning that the Bowl’s dreaded BBAP (Big Band Audio Problem) once again reared its head. The BBAP seems to be generated by the failure to realize that big jazz bands are horn ensembles. Over-amplifying bass, drums, keyboards and guitars may be essential to contemporary rock and pop performances, but it completely distorts the natural sound of a big jazz band. One egregious example: the guitar (played properly by Will Matthews) in the Basie band should have had an almost subliminal quality, blending intimately with the bass, supporting the piano comments (remember, Count Basie was the founder of this band). But in this performance, the guitar strums often matched the level of the four trumpet section.
Listening to this out of balance reproduction, I couldn’t help but wonder how Gustavo Dudamel would feel about having the contrabasses in the Philharmonic consistently sounding louder in the audio mix than the violins.