The nearest I’ve heard in recent years to the classic Gillespie bebop big band of the 1940s was the Lincoln Center Latin Jazz Orchestra under Arturo O’Farrill, on a recording featuring singers really without jazz solos. The band on this set plays much more like such later big bands as the US State Department or the Newport Jazz Festival helped DG organise, front, lead, and direct.
It’s as good a band as any of those, though it’s impossible not to miss DG. Several of the same musicians are here, not least James Moody, octogenarian saxophone master and gloriously mad vocalist, and Slide Hampton, master trombonist and arranger. Nice as is Roberta Gambarini’s scat vocal on “Blue ‘n’ Boogie”, Moody’s joshing and yodelling delivery beside her prevail, setting things up for Roy Hargrove’s guest spot on trumpet, with some Harry Edison drawling that Jason Jackson echoes in a trombone solo, and the acoustics up there will hopefully allow DG to recognise.
Mulgrew Miller’s piano introduces “Off Minor” in an arrangement by the drummer Dennis Mackrel, perfectly in the line DG wished to develop when his dream was to have Monk a member of his big band. However, since he also needed a conventional pianist for other music, and couldn’t afford the two (and Woody Herman at the same time was trying to take DG off trumpet and turn him into a full-time composer-arranger). Monk couldn’t be paid a retainer, and Gillespian Monk remained a rare as well as very select commodity. Mackrel’s “Off Minor” is another classic example of the marriage of the two muses, one of the several fairly high peaks in a set which, like a lot of later Gillespie albums, throws such uncommon things up amid a general consistent standard. The peaks are to be cherished, and of course including the last two DG big bands’ work, some whole albums from DG’s last decades stand above the rest.
Jimmy Heath’s “Without You—No Me (to Dizzy)” is a new composition, and the little tenor saxophonist’s arrangement is as near as anybody could get to expressing besottedness with the DG big band. The brass writing is subtle and refined with the necessary fire, Claudio Roditi wastes no notes in a big-toned solo, and while Heath’s own tenor-playing is beautifully fluid, his real triumph is orchestral. Another towering peak, and Mackrel’s “Hot House” is not so far below it, Antonio Hart lifting things with his alto solo, Roy Hargrove impressive on trumpet, and as so often on this set, Marty Ashby is a serious presence. With DG’s longtime bass guitarist John Lee, he achieves the little miracle of conjuring the master’s latterday small-group rhythmic conception behind the invariably distinguished soloists. Then again, on “Hot House” the saxophone section plays wonderfully the excellent ensemble writing with which it has been provided. Did I say how extremely good Heath’s tribute is, to be above that one?
“Stardust” is a vocal feature for Gambarini, opening the verse and the chorus unaccompanied, and thus presenting the ensemble with mighty challenges in their entries. Slide Hampton’s arrangement might be called unsaleable since it’s hard to imagine many ensembles able to perform it. One might suspect that Ms. Gambarini is the object of an intense crush on the part of the veterans, she’s so extensively featured throughout.
Ernie Wilkins’s “Tour de Force” is a less Gillespian chart, more Wilkins’s Basie style with Gillespian rhythm section and nods to DG in Randy Brecker’s as ever magnificent trumpet. Annie Ross once had a hit with words to a James Moody solo, and this seems to have encouraged Heath to present Gambarini with band vocal choir in a tribute that turns into a solo feature for Moody’s tenor and the lady’s scatting. This is less successful than Heath’s DG tribute. Inevitably?
There is an old verse about the lady, who when she was bad was awful. That’s the last thing I want to say about Ms. Gambarini, who never comes near being even mediocre. When the lady in the rhyme was good, she was “very, very good”: a phrase positively insulting to this band. For sheer accomplished virtuoso playing, it’s hard to imagine any equal. The half dozen really triumphant charts and performances are probably worth singling out at the modest cost of undervaluing the rest, which have been equalled by several bands on numerous occasions. As for the rest, the best, that’s even as good as even Dizzy deserves.