Dizzy Gillespie loved big bands. Although he will forever be primarily remembered as Parker’s co-revolutionary, their joint ventures actually formed a tiny fraction of his career, both in terms of time and recorded output. On the other hand, from 1945 until his death, Gillespie was either fronting a big band or attempting to assemble one. He ran into the usual financial problems facing any such post-war project but did grace each decade until his death with at least one fine example. Critical acclaim and public support were patchy but looking back now, his achievement seems remarkable and the legacy substantial.
From his introduction of bebop patterns and Cuban elements in the ‘40s, through the use of gifted arrangers such as Benny Golson and Quincy Jones in the ‘50s, to the diverse final bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Gillespie not only sustained the large group format but developed and expanded its possibilities. Fortunately, the critical climate is more open to big bands now than it has been for some time and his due is finally being fully accorded.
This “tribute” band will do nothing but add to the plaudits Gillespie is posthumously receiving. It is also a major force in its own right. Though this live recording is officially a one-off, I can’t believe the jazz community will let the players disperse after this magnificent album. Anyone with any feeling for jazz with style and panache will revel in Things to Come. Those who like big bands to begin with will weep with joy.
The “all-star” in the title is no idle boast. The line-up includes James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Frank Wess, John Lee, Slide Hampton, Antonio Hart, Renee Rosnes, Jay Ashby, and Jon Faddis, plus other equally fine musicians, and so reads like a whole and prestigious jazz festival in one band. Some of these are legends in their own right, some are rising stars, many have performed with Gillespie and all are at the top of their game. Trumpeter Jon Faddis conducts (and has fun with his high register blowing), while the charts are in the hands of under-rated composer and superior bass player Lee. Both played with Dizzy and both cover themselves in glory.
But then so does everybody. The material and its execution can hardly be faulted. Of course, you need to have a taste for the sometimes-brash exuberance of all those horns, but the excitement and intensity is overwhelming in a positive rather than an oppressive fashion. There is nuance here and variety. This is no Buddy Rich or Maynard Ferguson onslaught but a perfect balance of power and subtlety. The up numbers are as bold and brassy as they should be, while the ballads are sensitive and soothing. Whatever the tempo, the texture is rich but with plenty of room for some distinguished solo work.
As for the tunes, well, it is a mouth-watering selection. Three from Benny Golson (“Stablemates”, “Whisper Not”, and “I Remember Clifford”) remind us what a major figure he is. Quincy Jones’ “Jessica’s Day”, Monk’s “Round Midnight”, Ray Brown’s “Ray’s Idea”, and the standard “Lover Come Back to Me” would light up any set. Dizzy’s own work is represented by “Night In Tunisia” (naturally) plus “Emanon” and “Things to Come”, three of the most important items in the modern canon. Finally, his groundbreaking collaboration with Chano Pozo is celebrated with an exultant reading of “Manteca”, the implications of which underpin the whole modern Latin jazz scene. Twelve out and out classics delivered with love and respect.
Individual highlights can almost be picked at random. Martin Ashby’s intricate but never showy guitar on “Round Midnight” or Terrel Stafford’s moving trumpet work on “I Remember Clifford” shows that moments of excellence are not confined to the more “stellar” names. Of the younger generation, Renee Rosnes is in particularly telling form throughout, making the most of eight impressive solo opportunities. Rosnes, the one woman in the orchestra, is nobody’s token figure and whether in bluesy-bop mode (“Emanon”) or just adding little touches of delicate magic (“Manteca”) is central to that extra-layering that makes this such a convincing group performance.
Frank Wess, on flute and tenor, deserves special mention. Often unfairly regarded as a worthy journeyman, his sax on “Round Midnight” is worth its place alongside the great big band solos of the past. Johnny Hodges would have been proud to produce such a warm and well-modulated statement. To stand out in a sax section that includes James Moody and Jimmy Heath is not easy but I think he does.
I cannot imagine a better tribute both to Dizzy and to the potential of the big band sound than this album. Heard live, it must have been very special indeed. In its mixture of energy and elegance, this has to be one of the more inspired ideas of recent times. Let’s hope these in-demand musicians find time for another outing. Soon.