The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra Erupts!

cover Resonance 2XHDRE1225

T. JONES: Back Bone (2 tks). All My Yesterdays (2 tks). Big Dipper (2 tks). Mornin’ Reverend (2 tks). The Little Pixie. Low Down. Ah, That’s Freedom. Don’t Ever Leave Me. Mean What You Say. Once Around. DAVID-RAMIREZ-SHERMAN: Lover Man. RONELL: Willow Weep for Me. BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: Polka Dots and Moonbeams / Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra: Thad Jones, fl-hn; Snooky Young, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry, Jimmy Nottingham, tpt; Bob Brookmeyer, Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Cliff Heather, tb; Jerome Richardson, a-sax/s-sax/cl/bs-cl/fl; Jerry Dodgion, a-sax; Joe Farrell, t-sax/cl/fl; Eddie Daniels, t-sax/cl;bs-cl; Pepper Adams, bar-sx; Hank Jones, pno; Richard Davis, bs; Sam Herman, gtr; Mel Lewis, dm / Resonance Records 2XHDRE1225, digital only, also available for free streaming on YouTube starting HERE (live: New York, February 7 & March 21, 1966)

I well remember the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1970s and early ‘80s on their commercial recordings. They played well and had some good solos, but the basic sound profile of the band was somewhat soft and mushy, obviously the victim of engineering at the time, so I only ever owned one of their records. They just didn’t seem to be as interesting a band as those of Rod Levitt, Toshiko Akiyoshi, David Murray or even late Stan Kenton. But boy was I wrong!

This red-hot issue of two live sets from the Village Vanguard in New York in February and March 1966, the first of which was the band’s actual debut. was recorded at the time by 19-year-old jazz enthusiast and self-taught engineer George Klabin, later the founder of Resonance Records, and on these recordings the band sounds crisp, bright and full all at the same time. The miking is close, yet you still get the ambience of the Vanguard, where the Jones-Lewis band played on and off in residencies for 12 years.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Thad Jones was considered to be one of the hottest young trumpet stars in the business. He was widely considered to be the successor to Clifford Brown when that brilliant young trumpeter died in an auto crash, and both he and his brothers—pianist Hank, who plays with him in the band, and drummer Elvin, who was a mainstay in the John Coltrane Quartet for years—were on the cutting edge of the young jazz lions of his time.

The big band was Jones’ idea; he wanted a venue to showcase his writing and arranging skills, and he got it. All but three selections on these two sets were written and arranged by Thad, although at this early stage of the band’s career they didn’t seem to have that wide a repertoire; between the two sets, four tunes are played twice, sometimes on the same date. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying this music; this is highly charged, explosive big-band jazz, a more modern equivalent of the roaring bands of Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Billy Eckstine, Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie from the 1930s and ‘40s. In the years leading up to this orchestra, most newer big bands tended towards the cool side (e.g. Marty Paich, the Gerry Mulligan Concert Orchestra and even the Kenton mellophonium band), thus the Jones-Lewis orchestra seemed both retro and contemporary at the same time.

And what a lineup they had! Just take a look at the personnel: Snooky Young and Jimmy Owens on trumpets, Bob Brookmeyer on trombone, Jerome Richardson and Jerry Dodgion on alto saxes, Joe Farrell and Eddie Daniels on tenors, Pepper Adams on baritone sax. These guys could play, and all of them were available because the general trend of the mid-‘60s was away from their more straightahead style of jazz and more into the more progressive and free jazz sounds of Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and latter-day Miles Davis. By the time this band debuted, they were considered great players but representatives of a somewhat more conservative strain of jazz.

But they were clearly having too much fun to worry about what the critics thought. They thrived and grew at the Vanguard and, as I say, were making records for Concord Jazz and other labels into the 1980s. The opening night concert of February 7, 1966 was originally issued by BMG in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2016 that Resonance put out the complete two dates on this set. the Resonance issue once included a 96-page booklet with extensive essays and liner notes, but I don’t think that’s available any more. Even so, this is a set to treasure simply because the playing is so hot and the sound quality so incredibly clear and bright.

If I refrain from giving much description of the performances herein, it isn’t from lack of interest or enthusiasm but simply because this was a band of jazz peers playing together as a unit and complementing both each other and the complex ensemble writing of Jones with solos that fit into the context of the music. Despite their enormous talent, none of these soloists were spotlight hogs; their goal was to enhance the whole, not to play a dozen choruses to impress their brilliance on you. Thus, if you are the kind of listener who lives for those “blockbuster” sort of solos that splatter all over the place and dominate the soundscape, you’ve come to the wrong party. This is a band that not only prided itself on ensemble playing but also in playing solos that fit the framework—the end. Brother Hank, for instance, was a pianist who could easily have taken over and given the listener flashes of Bud Powell if he so chose, and once in a while here (as in his surprisingly long solo on The Little Pixie) he gives you a few Powell-like moments, but for the most part he stays within himself and just contributes to the whole, as do the others.

And I tell you what…after several years of listening to jazz groups large and small nowadays that play the most complex, convoluted rhythms you’ve ever heard, it’s nice to hear a band that just swings and isn’t ashamed of doing so. Of course, as I alluded to earlier, this is a more progressive kind of swing, occasionally bordering on bop, like the music played in the ‘40s by the bands named above, but compared to the majority of jazz orchestras of their time (except, of course, the Tonight Show Band led by Doc Severinsen), this band is Swing City. The only thing I can’t quite figure out from just listening is whether Richard Davis is playing an early electric upright bass or just an acoustic bass miked so well that it sounds like one, but either way it’s a pleasure to hear him keeping time in a way that recalls the work of Billy Taylor, Chubby Jackson, Oscar Pettiford et al instead of constantly shifting the beat around so much that after one chorus you’re completely lost.

In addition, there’s the X factor. This band had an absolutely ball playing together; they had so much fun that you can hear it and even feel it on the record, and it spilled over to the audience, completely caught up in the spirit of the moment no matter what they were playing. Just listen to the very opening of the first track, Back Bone, or the opening of the alternate take of Big Dipper at the end of the February 7 set for an example of what I mean.

Thad Jones’ compositions aren’t always brilliant, but some of them are, and even in such tunes as All My Yesterdays and Low Down which are simpler fare the enthusiasm of this band carries the day. The last time I heard a big jazz orchestra played with this much gusto was the one time I saw Toshiko Akiyoshi conduct an orchestra, not her own but jazz students at the 1979 Aspen Music Festival (although hubby Lew Tabackin did play tenor sax in that band). Perhaps the single most imaginative arrangement on this album is that of Ann Ronell’s classic Willow Weep for Me; here Thad Jones, both in his writing and his flugelhorn playing, so completely transforms this song that he almost makes it as personal a piece for him as I Can’t Get Started was for Bunny Berigan. It may well be his musical masterpiece—and yet, except for the chart itself, it’s almost a throwaway performance. He probably played it differently every time out, but this one performance was the one that was recorded for posterity. Once Around is a real gem, a fast-paced, explosive piece that reminded me a bit of the Mulligan band’s Blue Port, and Thad dominates the solo space here, too, as well he should, though Pepper Adams also gets to play a wonderful solo.

An exceptional album in every way. If there is some way you can get it from Resonance with the 96-page booklet without having to waste your money on vinyl LPs, do so; otherwise, get it as a download. It’s well worth the effort.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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