Thad Jones was a singular trumpet master who died prematurely and too little acknowledged as a major composer-arranger. The little big band here is simply as distinguished as any on record.
Like his younger brother Elvin, and the pianist on this date -- his now 87-year-old elder brother Hank (here in terrific form as the legendary master pianist he is) -- the late Thad Jones was an outstanding musician. He liked the darker middle register of the trumpet, favoured the cornet, and is generally regarded as the one entirely simpatico trumpeter-cornetist on Monk recordings, as thoroughly inside Monk's head as anybody ever got.
He made a string of other distinguished recordings -- for instance, discs with Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and Pepper Adams -- but for a lengthy stretch he earned the salary of a member of Count Basie's orchestra. Basie's bands always had a specific style, and relation to established audiences, and only so much of what Thad composed could fit. Other bands and musicians played and commissioned Thad's music over the years, and it came to the fore most prominently with the band put together by Thad and the ace drummer Mel Lewis, a couple of years after Thad had left Basie to freelance.
Starting as a rehearsal band, it grew into the Village Vanguard in New York. The same band played under Lewis after Thad relocated to Denmark just over a quarter century ago now, and has survived Lewis's own untimely demise, still playing Thad's scores at the Vanguard.
Thad also led the Danish Radio Big Band (not so far from Herb Geller's Hamburg radio big band), and his own Copenhagen group has a nice CD, Eclipse. He even led the Basie band following Basie's death in 1984, but for only a year. He was ill, and died of cancer in 1986.
Eighteen years later, an extraordinarily starry band was assembled by the IPO company to perform and record the present set of Thad Jones compositions, re-scored by Michael Patterson, a real pro, for a pretty much standard small big band instrumental line-up.
Jimmy Owens -- a member of the original Village Vanguard band who'd left before it recorded -- plays trumpet. Bob Brookmeyer's valve trombone resumes the role it filled beautifully in the Jones/Lewis band -- for which Brookmeyer also wrote. Thad's Basie-ite partner Frank Wess was joined in the reed section by James Moody, still a major saxophonist and flautist a fortnight before his seventy-ninth birthday (he's just turned eighty, younger than Wess!), and by Benny Golson, whose tenor playing has lately been breathtaking.
Thad's brother Hank was the first pianist with the Jones/Lewis band, but, like Owens, left to do other things before the band's recording period and heyday. Richard Davis was that band's bassist and is here, with wonderful Mickey Roker on drums.
The intro to the first number is miraculous, akin to a Gil Evans/Miles Davis orchestration. The winding theme of "Subtle Rebuttal" sounds like an orchestration of Hank's piano solo which follows it -- and almost clarifies it. Golson's airy solo refreshes, Owens is clean and bell-like on solo, and Frank Wess's entry on flute floats. "Thad's Pad" follows, and well may Ira Gitler's liner note name Tadd Dameron. Thad gave section-players non-routine individual challenges, while Dameron wrote each one an individual melody. Is this lovely thing Tadd's or Thad's pad? Bless 'em both!
Brookmeyer's trombone sustains the ensemble on "Kids Are Pretty People" inside his now soft broad sound. Yet again Golson, and Owens, and Hank. The title track's less successful, with its Parkerish theme and each of the three tenors soloing nicely at length. They don't come together right; there's never been enough of an edge to any of those beautifully mellow sounds. But for stamina and fleetness, nobody would guess Golson was 75, Moody 79, and Wess of the floating sensitivity 82! Their slight tangle stops with the bold, virile entry of Hank (then 86), with 74-year-old Richard Davis and ageless Mickey Roker. The final ensemble rises amazingly.
"Mean What You Say" is something of a ballad, the ensemble centred on Owens's fluegelhorn (a boy of 61). Moody demonstrates that he is the complete tenor player, nay musician, once celebrated as the one bop tenorist with all the virtues of an older generation, subsequently master of oblique phrases from scalar players. A great expressive range in an ethereal context. On the accompaniment, Gitler's reference to Davis's 'fat notes' can't be bettered, and the bassist swings into a solo and Roker works out briefly on brushes before the end.
"A Child Is Born" is probably Thad's most celebrated tune, a meditation prefaced in Jones/Lewis band performances by a solo tune from their pianist, Roland Hanna. Hanna's sudden decline and death a couple of years ago was a shocking blow, but here, from his IPO album Tributaries: Reflections on Tommy Flanagan, is presumably his last recorded improvisation on the theme, going into Debussy and then combining, as possibly nobody else could, the Debussy aspect with jazz swing and syncopation. Genius. Hank plays an amazing splice as the band enters, and emulates Hanna's singular practice of playing lots of piano within the big band ensemble. Owens has a solo, and any two notes of Hank's playout would identify his distinctive keyboard voice. He's never played better than he does here, But, oh! The single punctuation by the whole band at the very end was a blunder.
"Bossa Nova Ova" is duly spry, Brookmeyer's solo featuring his remarkable (for a valve-trombonist!) sliding in of notes. "The Waltz You Swang for Me" has Hank sounding as funky as his piano-voice can manage, with powerful left hand -- worthy of a young Roland Hanna -- fitting into ingenious scoring. Moody proceeds to outclass any soprano player around, with winding lines and sometimes cor anglais passages, a sort of gospel music played on wind instruments by angels. There's nice interplay between Brookmeyer and Moody before the latter has the last statement of the Word.
After a trio opening, Hank notably virile, "H&T Blues" has a lot of treading softly and tiptoeing, like Ellington's "Blues in Blueprint": a late night performance which could disturb no neighbour. The Ellingtonian ensemble is followed by Brookmeyer in duo with Davis. Wess's alto is entirely individual, and Golson follows, sounding like Lucky Thompson. Davis's bass here has the most beautiful sound.
Brookmeyer resumes with the tighter sound he produced years ago. The band playout is back in Gil Evans Heaven. "Consummation" was composed long ago as a feature for Owens, and the implicit harmonies of this ballad are recognisably Thad. It has harmonies rather than a tune, though it resembles "My Ship". In this quartet performance, Hank comes forward and, for a while, partners rather than accompanies, Davis and Roker more than one dared wish for, through the piano solo and Owens's playout.
"The Farewell" is a hallelujah-ing sort of tune with Wess's alto notable in the wailing opening band choruses. Owens does his best to play a more Louis Armstrong trumpet on this number from Thad's Armstrong suite. Wess and Brookmeyer have the right broad simplicity as separate voices enhancing the ride-out, as well as the beginning. What went before was very hard to follow.
Sometime in the 1940s, Thelonious Monk taught Hank "Monk's Mood", and the unaccompanied performance Hank gives of it here to wind up this spectacular disc is the most celebratory on record.