The other day while listening to a podcast of the great Stan Kenton Orchestra on Big Band Serenade, I found myself lamenting the economic exigencies that had put so many of these great musical ensembles out of business after the glory years of the last century. If not for late-night TV talk shows, big bands seemed doomed to follow in the footsteps of the dinosaur. Then I found myself listening to an NPR New Years Eve concert of Los Angeles-based Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, and I’m thinking maybe there’s life in the old brontosaurus yet. And then wonder of wonders, a few days go by and in the mail comes Lush, a debut album from the Joe Clark Big Band featuring Jeff Hamilton. What we have here is a nothing short of renaissance.
Of course, I exaggerate. Big bands may have been hibernating for half a dozen decades or so, but every once in awhile one or two would wake up, make itself heard, and make the mouths of fans who remembered the old days water with the taste of the past. And when one of those bands married that big band sound to a style all its own, you had to hope they would overcome the economic perils and thrive. Listening to Goodwin’s band, listening to the eight tracks on Lush, you can’t help but feel there’s real hope for the future. There is some fine music going on.
Composer/arranger Clark has put together a talented group of artists who have bought into the idea of ensemble performance. They work together cohesively, and when they solo, they can create some real magic. There is something special when the conversation between the soloist and the rest of the band begins to cook, and these guys can cook. Clark calls them his “dream team,” and the proof is in the pudding. They take title of a classic like “Tenderly” seriously and make it live again. They get hold of “Free-Wheeling” (one of the Clark originals) and give it a truly modern edge. Clark and his band aren’t looking to rehash old ideas, they are looking to build on them. Take his “Red Sky,” you hear what could be very familiar classic lines, but they are quickly moved in a contemporary direction. Clark’s arrangements plant seeds from the past and lets them grow.
The album begins with a Thelonious Monk composition—”Well You Needn’t.” Featured drummer Jeff Hamilton sets the direction and the band takes off. His own “Samba de Martelo” gives the drummer, who Clark calls “a real artist—Baryshnikov of the beat,” another opportunity to shine. There is an atmospheric Clark piece called “Femme Fatale,” which the liner notes point out gives us a look at Clark’s “film-noir-savvy mind.” They do a nice job with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” and the set ends with a swinging take on “Yesterday’s Gardenias.”
Good big band music doesn’t get old. Lush is big band music as good as it gets.