Three recent albums are muscling the big band jazz tradition into the new decade, each in its own way. On Bluesville, New York City’s Swingadelic focuses on the bluesy side of big band music. The Jim Waller Big Band funks it up on Bucket List. And the Ian Charleton Big Band keeps it fresh on A Fresh Perspective.
“Groovy” is the word for the bluesy big-band swing of this good-time set from Swingadelic, a mainstay of Restaurant Row’s Swing 46 Jazz and Supper Club in New York City. Full of electric energy but with a nice dose of mellow swampiness, the album features tracks like a drawling version of the classic “Harlem Nocturne,” a honky-tonk take on Ray Charles’ “Mary Ann,” and Duke Ellington’s Roaring Twenties number “The Mooche.” Most of the tracks include vocals, supplied by a variety of band members and guests, and so with its heavy blues vibe the album lives in the lyrics as well as in the horn punches, smooth solos, and swing grooves. There’s even a stripped-down “Parchman Farm.”
But there are also two original tunes with a happy ’60s bounce, and Bluesville as a whole is a great road-trip disc – or, more likely in pandemic times, cooking-dinner music. It fuses blues and swing into a concoction that’s cool, warm, and hot in all the right places. Who knows – by the end you might be singing along with pianist John Bauers on Willie Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live” and meaning every word.
Jim Waller Big Band: Bucket List
Where the blues informed Swingadelic’s latest, the debut big-band album from arranger and multi-instrumentalist Jim Waller takes pages from funk, fusion, sophisticated swing and other styles. Waller shows off his exceptional arranging chops throughout the set. About half the tracks are his originals, including the spiky leadoff track “Samba for Suzell,” which displays the band’s tightness and the leader-arranger’s rhythmic and harmonic creativity and skill at crafting exciting group riffage.
Waller put together the band for this recording, but they sound as if they could have been gigging meatily for years. Vocalist Jacqueline Sotelo joins in with easygoing little-girl vocals and a brilliant scat on her first of five features, Peggy Lee’s “I Love Being Here With You.” Waller’s velvety tenor sax features on a number of tunes, including the sensitive original “A Ballad for Bob.” A relaxed mode of funk settles in with his deceptively complex “New Blue Funk,” his fusion-y “Funksuite 109,” and “Waltz for Laura” which has a whiff a funky choppiness in its 3/4 beat.
“Georgia on My Mind” and “God Bless the Child” take on a modern sound via a series of feel changes as Sotelo’s sweet, elastic vocals keep them grounded. And just try not to smile at what she does with the melody of the old chestnut “Goody Goody.” Her slinky approach to “Who Don’t You Do Right” plays neatly with the progressive harmonic movement in the horns. More inventive still is a highly original seven-minute arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue,” a string-enhanced mini-epic of diverse beats and adventurous harmonics encircling Gershwin’s indelible themes.
Inventive and playful, Bucket List‘s mix of classics and originals is a bright delight for the ear.
Ian Charleton Big Band: A Fresh Perspective
Another mix of swinging standards and originals arrives with composer-arranger Ian Charleton’s first release in eight years. Recorded during the pandemic with social distancing measures in place, A Fresh Perspective features an 18-piece band, but you’d never guess it from the small-combo start of the first track, a Charleton original (the first of four) called “1 West 67th Street.” It’s when the horns kick in just before the two-minute mark that you know you’re in a world of skillful, exciting arrangements and foot-tapping swing.
TV in the ’70s would have been so much better had Charleton composed the scores. In fact he is sure enough of himself to open the album with three originals. The easygoing “Sunday Morning” and the jazz-waltz title track both gain charm from Kerry Moffit’s relaxed flugelhorn solos. A Dixieland vibe sneaks in with a sprightly arrangement of “Everything I’ve Got” featuring vocalist Emily Charleton, who is also featured on a funky-waltz recasting of the Irving Berlin chestnut “Blue Skies.” Moffit leads a soft-spoken reimagining of “Stardust,” and switches to trumpet on one of the album’s most effervescent tracks, Stefan Karlsson’s “El Otoño.”
A slowed-down “Tea for Two” put a smile on my face despite its melancholy air – I had to go back and listen to Lester Young’s old Aladdin Sessions version for reference! – followed by an eye-opening recasting of the sweet old jazz tune “When Sunny Gets Blue,” another of the disc’s top tracks, with fab solos from trombonist John Lloyd and tenor saxophonist Keith Philbrick, and some nice counterpoint in the arrangement. The song’s slinky chord changes work amazingly well as a hopping Latin number. The album closes with the hard-swinging original “Party on Park,” featuring ace ensemble writing and solos from the rhythm section, and David Fatek on the under-appreciated bari sax.
As Charleton says in Scott Yanow’s liner notes, “So much of American music is linked to big bands; it is really an American symphony orchestra, one that can do so much.” So true, especially in such talented hands as his.