Do I like Jazz & Big Band?

This is the first posting from bluetwango, “Our Man in Colorado”

Do I like Big Band, Jazz and Swing? That’s a simple question that calls for a complicated answer. I’ll try to riff on this awhile…

Not so much in its original form. I enjoy watching an old clip of a nattily tailored band playing to elegant dancers in a sleek Art Deco ballroom, caught on some classic movie on TCM. It truly was a time — but not the only time — when popular music achieved excellence, and excellence found an audience. That said, I don’t listen to any classic Big Band, at all.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, about a year ago when I dropped by a humble tavern in my neighborhood that had started booking jazz.  I stepped inside and found myself face-to-face with an 11-piece Big Band in full thunder. What I took for the front door turned out o be a side door, so I was literally fronting the band, a yard in front of the rhythm section. If there had been a mike and a song I knew, I might have tried to sing it– the experience was that immediate and involving. Instead, I found a seat among a crowd that barely outnumbered the players. It was bigger the next week, though.

I probably spent five hours in there, coming back with my little family, and again as the cast of players shifted from week to week. They always were some of Denver’s best players, many of them are teachers at a local college’s jazz program. I realized I”d been hearing their names on the local jazz radio station (one of the few 24-hour jazz spots on any dial). We’ve quietly been developing a cadre of notables, most notably trumpeter Ron Miles. Bill Frisell, who knocks me out with his Hendrix-influenced Americana, was a Denver native who comes by often.

GuitaristBbill Frisell

GuitaristBbill Frisell

How was the music? Oh, the music. Melodic, dynamic, intensely emotional. Cheerful, in a way jazz often isn’t, but that’s in tune with the bandleader’s debut title, “Unfailing Kindness.” The composer and conductor was Chie Imazumi, a Berklee grad who’s set up shop in Denver for now. She paints with the usual big-band’s broad palette of instruments, along with a prominent lead guitarist who sometimes cranks it into overdrive. (It’s my generation, cuz- without a little feedback and distortion now and them, something’s just missing for me.) I’d be happy to send you a copy, or suggest you buy one– she’s still small enough to need the income.

That was only one of the incidents that periodically remind me that I like Big Band, though I don’t… much…

Another was my first after-show chat with my musical idol, Pat Metheny. When I asked him why he never stretched or altered compositions or arrangements when performing with the Pat Metheny Group, he replied, “They’re the big band. They play the charts.” (Later when he cut my favorite movements out of two of his songs played live, I was deeply irritated and sorry I’d suggested anything!) It was easy to see the Group as a modern Big Band. Its core quartet are augmented by between three and five second-line musicians who multiply their own efforts with a battery of wind instruments, arrays of mallets and percussion oddities, plus guitars and vocals. It’s something to see live, as deliberate and intricate as a watching a team of top chefs working up dinner in the diner of a speeding train, to stretch a metaphor. The Group’s last effort, “The Way Up,”  involved nine musicians playing over an hour with a composition that fills a 300-page music book. So yes, I like complexity, which is one thing Big Bands were good at, and something that got lost in the bebop age of minimalist bands. Pat’s next act, which should push complexity to a new level, is too compose and tour with a modern Orchestration. Check his site for details- any attempt at description of this would keep me up even later, and it’s too late now.

Guitarist Pat Metheny

Guitarist Pat Metheny

I’d recommend you look up “The Music of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays” by Bob Curnow and the LA Big Band. It’s a small label, hard to find, but a great project. It’s a note-for-note rearrangement into the language of a big Big Band, with over two dozen players, IIRC.  These compositions are deeply grooved into my brain now, but hearing them with oboes and clarinets taking the leads was a whole new experience. It removed all the distance between me and the Big Band era, all those pencil-thin mustaches and zoot suits and dry cocktails. But I have pretty big ears. Driving through Kansas City once, I was treated to an hour’s program on Lounge music. Sandy Denny and the like. Wow, what a forgotten genre of music! I found myself digging some of it. Lots of emphasis on orchestration; not just what notes are played, but what voices play them. A good bit of world music influence, too, like I hear in Metheny’s music, who also grew up in KC, listening to this stuff, perhaps?

So, Big Band strikes me when I’m out looking for something else. As for Swing, I hear that in all good jazz. If I had to find some on my shelf, I’d dig for my disc of David Grisman with Stephane Grappelli. Anything by Grisman swings like Chipper Jones at a high fast one, right?

’til later,


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5 Responses to Do I like Jazz & Big Band?

  1. Great post for your opening salvo, bluetwango. Lots of good information there.

    I will look for the Bob Curnow recordings. They sound interesting. Maybe he is available in I find a lot of good stuff there.

    I like Pat Metheny. I saw him, live in Atlanta, quite a few years ago. Great performance, great tunes. I was with some real devotees. The kind of folks who will travel and follow the same tour to multiple cities. Like Deadheads!

    They had us in the first row, and I was smack in front of a bank of speakers about the size of a Photomat. Couldn’t hear for days afterwards.

  2. bluetwango says:

    Geez, St…er, Jazzmonger. Was that around ’98 or so, at the Fox? I was at that one. I dragged my wife and infant across six state lines for that show. It was on the Imaginary Day tour, which hadn’t booked into Denver at the time. It did come the following spring, so I saw that set twice. This was not the first time I’ve done this. If the We Live Here tour hadn’t begun there, I might have never strolled the streets of El Paso.
    I spent two days in Kansas City just anticipating Pat’s 2002 Trio appearance in Lawrence, Kansas, (a surprisingly hip college town) before his hometown audience. And I’m leaning hard towards buying tickets for Pat’s spring appearance with his Orchestrion Project in Salt Lake City.

    So yes, I am one of those devotees, the “Patheads.” It’s a pretty neat habit to suffer from.

    It was the last one before Antonio Sanchez replaced Paulo Wertico in the drum chair. Sanchez is a marvel, and his arrival was a step up in raw virtuosity. But I never thought that was what the PMG was all about. For his two decades with the group, Paul was great at setting the mood of a song, showing great discipline and originality. For “Last Train Home,” the Group’s smooth jazz hit of the early nineties, he maintained a steady choo-choo chug, on a hi-hat and brushed snare, for six minutes without a break, perfectly emulating the mechanical rhythms of a steam train.

    Wertico’s role reminded me of George Harrison’s lead guitar work with the Beatles; instead of long, heroic rock-star solos, he would craft concise hooks that perfectly suited the songs, different every time. Would the Beatles have been improved by installing Eric Clapton in his place? I doubt it.

    Pat’s shows can get pretty loud. I bring earplugs, but only use them for a few of the hottest passages. He likes to use the whole dynamic range, from the quietest to the loudest sounds. Early metal groups like Led Zeppelin used this trick often, to great effect. So did the classic Big bands, I’d wager. But I was too young, and it was before my bedtime.

  3. The Pat Metheny show I was at was earlier than 1998, and it was at The Roxy. Much smaller venue and we were CLOSE to the group. I could have thrown a grape and made it stick to Pat’s guitar.

    What you say about their performance of “Last train Home,” is characteristic of something I remember. They did some amazingly long numbers. And, as with classical jazz, many numbers cycled through long solos by pretty much each band member.

    They absolutely filled the place with music, You could see them, one-by-one, disappear into the music and completely forget us. And, amazingly, they pulled you right in there with them.

    Speaking of earplugs, Kevin Kelly had some on his “Cool Tools” that sounded great. here is the link:

    I might need to do a post on these. Good item for live music junkies.

  4. bluetwango says:

    A funny & unexpected pop cult reference to Metheny was heard tonight on NPR’s “Fresh Aire.” Check it out at It was a clip from a comedy by producer Mike Judge, the interviewee. A pair of overeager music store salesmen were pitching a Gibson guitar to a fetching and flirtatious young beauty.

    “It’s just like Metheny plays,” said one. “He’s the greatest fusion guitar player.”

    “I… don’t know ho you’re talking about. But it’s a beautiful guitar. Do you have it in another color?”
    Both guys rush to the back room to fetch the instrument, while she picks up the first guitar and walks out the door.

    That’s the first joke, the one most folks get. But a true Pathead knows he stopped playing the Gibson ES-175 ten years ago, and that he hates being called a fusion guitar player. “My stuff was a reaction against that,” he writes. His music is built from melodies, not riffs. Compared with McLaughlin, Coryell and Di Meola, Pat slowed the music down to my speed of listening. And he takes most of his inspiration and style from horn players, not guitarists.

    But if he’s not a fusion guitarist, he’s certainly created a wide assortment of fusion music, leaping continents to seek new musical material. Brazilian grooves mix with Asian instruments, classical orchestras with synth guitars, all seasoned with steely broad-strummed textures from country music.

    So he’s an anti-fusion guitarist creating fusion music. That’s like the other paradox he’s often posed: All the members of his band must be familiar and expert in bebop, although they’ll hardly ever come right out and play it.

  5. Pingback: Pat Metheny – Fusion Guitarists & Genre Purity « the jazzmonger

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