Art Lillard's Heavenly Band

Reasons to Be Thankful

by Robert R. Calder

12 April 2006


According to John J. Cooper’s notes, “the Heavenly Big Band can conjure up the vibe from when big band jazz was at the height of its popularity”. I think not, since the period of that height of popularity coincides with most of the lifetime of a Count Basie band that ran out of bookings sometime around 1950. And the style of the ensemble on this set is rather that of the big band Basie assembled only later, after he had been forced to scale down. The leader seems to think that the altoist Bob Mover produces the nearest thing to Charlie Parker currently to be heard, and that definitely does suggest at least the later 1940s at the latest. While the Lincoln Center Latin Jazz orchestra under Arturo O’Farrill is pretty much the closest thing to the later 1940s Dizzy Gillespie big band anybody is liable to hear live today—and O’Farrill plays piano on six of the thirteen tracks here (Dizzy’s later pianist Mike Longo plays on the others)—1960s Basie is nearer this band’s benchmark. The use of flutes in ensemble certainly reinforces that impression.

Mary Foster Conklin sings well on four tracks, and there are other vocals by Miles Griffith (2) and Cleve Douglass, with a couple of additional contributions from Longo and from Brooks Lillard. The solos are generally competent, and there’s no doubt about the musicality of the band, but on the whole this is not a big band recording of special distinction or appeal beyond the sort of big band accompaniments which were arranged for vocalists before rock and roll came along. One of the more credible legends of popular music and jazz is that people in the 1950s and 1960s were asking “Will the big bands ever come back?” for reasons connected with the arrival of singers as the front line of listener interest, rather than, as previously, side or incidental attractions with the big bands.

Michael Boschen does play some very nice trombone on the opening “Bluez Organ Man”, but just when on a jazz big band track he would be expected to expand on what he had begun, there’s an R&B-ish tenor solo from David Peterson, and the ensemble takes things down toward only a sudden stop. Mark McCarron, the band’s very able guitarist, contributed the composition and arrangement “The Fast Track”, which could have passed for a 1960s Basie band number, even from the title, let alone the Basie-isms in Mike Longo’s solo. But it’s Basie played by some other band. As when Boschen’s trombone solo is cut off, and Peterson’s raspy tenor frets away, there is throughout a lack of urgency, really a lack of timing. Mover’s alto is interesting enough, but the band lacks fire, it lacks the risky element, the tension which seems to have been ruled out along with the danger of mistakes or the prospect of getting carried away. I can imagine this band sounding a lot better live.

Long ago I heard Gil Evans’s British touring band, whose music was nothing like this fairly conservative stuff, but one thing I do remember is that Evans over and above the electronic stuff (and catastrophic problems with the sound system) managed to get the horns ringing out, just like bands of older men did, musicians who grew up without sound systems doing a lot of it for them. Maybe this band blows properly outside a studio?

Reasons to Be Thankful


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