Some excellent big band recordings have come out recently, proving that this storied and lively jazz subgenre continues to sizzle all these decades after the heydays of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller. Two I’m especially stoked about, from Andrew Neu and The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra, could hardly be more different, yet both sit firmly and joyously in the broad big-band tradition.
The Big Band Side of Andrew Neu: Catwalk
Tenor saxophonist Andrew Neu arranged all 11 tracks on Catwalk and wrote eight of them. They carry all the density, smooth harmonies, and rhythmic excitement of the great swing bands of the past, plus some ventures into the unexpected. Neu has an easy knack for creating flowing ensemble riffs and tucking dense harmonies into rolling passages that sound like the most natural things in the world. Meanwhile he and a cadre of top-notch soloists and big-name guests contribute fluid solos.
Neu’s accessible original compositions sit right in the pocket of traditional big band sounds and rhythms, as if he were pulling neglected classics off obscure old records. At the same time, they sound fresh in the hands of the crack ensemble he’s assembled.
There are Latin flavors (“Zebrano” and “Wasamba”), dips into the offbeat (a surprisingly natural-sounding reimagining of “Body and Soul” in 7/4 time), sensitive moods (“My Dear,” “Cinema Paradiso”), unexpected sounds (guest soloist Brian Bromberg’s piccolo bass on “Wasamba”), rock-the-boat counterpoint (“What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Too Much of a Good Thing”), Charlie’s Angels cool (“Catwalk”), and a plethora of just plain virtuosity, with guest appearances from the likes of Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Rick Braun, and Eric Marienthal, who leads “My Dear” with a stream of brilliant alto sax improvisation.
Some of the hard-hitting numbers like “Juggernaut” and “Alpha Dog” even take me back to my adolescent fascination with Maynard Ferguson’s band in the ’70s. But when Neu’s arranging talent is derivative, it is so only in the very best sense of the word. Exceptional ensemble writing abounds, for example in “Cinema Paradiso” and the icy, martini-dry intro to “Body and Soul.” This album is a winner through and through.
The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra: Ain’t It Grand?
The Glenn Crytzer Orchestra goes old-school. For a jumpin’, jivin’ good time, try their double album Ain’t It Grand, crammed full of oldies by the likes of Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. Tracks like “The Glory of Love,” “Black Beauty,” “A String of Pearls,” “A Woman Needs a Man,” and “Solo Flight” sound chipper as ever, reinterpreted with a light and sometimes zany touch, and intermingled with a bevy of Crytzer originals in the style of 1930s and ’40s big bands. Crytzer’s arrangements, melodies, and even lyrics hark back to more innocent musical times.
Novelty tunes like “Shorty’s Got to Go” and “I’m Nuts About Screwy Music” keep spirits high. Lazy sleepers like “I Get Ideas” and “Just Like a Broken Record” and sneaky numbers like “Who’s Yehoodi?” and Ellington’s “The Mooche” round out the menu. Vocals from Crytzer, singer-songwriter Hannah Gill, and the fabulously named Dandy Wellington (another band leader who brings back the sounds of yesteryear) light up a number of tracks. Vivacious solos from band members keep the good times rolling. And all the while a jaunty rhythm section (including Crytzer on guitar and banjo) locks right into the spirit of the times.
Try not to bob your head to “Bear Foot Blues,” the penultimate track on this 30-song opus. (Many tracks clock in under three minutes.) Ain’t It Grand? is a pick-me-up in hard times and a celebration of good ones. The band may drag you deliciously behind the beat (as in “String of Pearls”), but you’ll never be behind the eight-ball.