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The MHS Review 395 Vol. 11 No. 17, 1987

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Spencer Bennett


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Elvis and Patti Page were not the on­ly icons of the 1950s. I can remember hot Florida nights when I searched diligently on the shortwave band of my old Silvertone for the Voice of America, and the sounds of the big bands beamed toward hungry Eastern Europeans. There, in the midnight hours, purists could catch the Ell­ington Orchestra and Count Basie, both groups seemingly retrenching and cutting fewer sides but remaining alive as road bands. I knew, even at 16, that I was hearing originals and, in Basie's crisp ensembles and Ellington's excursions into tonal loveliness, the summation of traditions reaching back to the '20s and '30s. (Daytime listen­ing was more difficult, for few FM sta­tions across the country thought jazz had any commercial value; many were experimenting with formulas that lull­ed listeners into somnambulent shop­ping sprees, formulas that are now supermarket cliches.)

But still, if Ellington, Basie, and the Herman bands were in airtime eclipse, there was solace to be found in big bands that found their niches in the post-war boom. A lot of these groups you won't even find indexed .in jazz anthologies: they were either too com­mercial or too eclectic for the purists. But for teenagers just being introduc­ed to the big bands they were our only avenue to the listening experience--just as Elvis was our in­troduction to the blues of Mississippi Blacks.

Les Brown's was one such band and Billy May's was another and Harry James' yet a third. All were deemed commercially acceptable by station managers, and yet all three offered im­provisational excitement framed in ar­rangements using time-honored riffs and smooth group playing. Les Brown captured that sax-section, single-instrument feeling that led us first to Tommy Dorsey and then to Woody Herman's First Herd. Billy May filled his arrangements with footnotes and references to Dixieland that were downright funny. And Harry James opened the door to Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong for us novices.

Here we have a band which, it seems to me, serves the same function in the '80s. Don't misunderstand. This is not a derivative outfit. The solos are original and the arrangements are fresh. But Schoenberg borrows from the best of the past in what he chooses to play and in the feel he gives the sound.

Benny Carter's "Smoothie," with its laid back "oodlie doodlie" tracking, will confound the ears of any Count Basie expert. "Harmony in Harlem" is an oblique Ellington tune that features a marvelous soprano sax break that is as much Sidney Bechet as it is Johnny Hodges in reference. And the title track, although a Woody Herman piece, echoes the mood of the Glenn Miller band in a haunting atmosphere of pastels.

The point is that this album serves two audiences: the neophyte in jazz and those of us who have been around awhile. The former gets a synthesis of styles and arranging genius spanning some 60 years of big-band history­not a reenactment but a fresh ap­proach to tradition. And for the ad­vanced listener? Well, prepare yourself for an excursion that will send you back to your record library for a delightful refresher course.

Review of Time Waits for No One pg 29

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