While their golden age certainly has passed, what was as true then as it is now is that big bands have never entirely disappeared, and in fact, there is considerable evidence that the classic format may be enjoying a bit of a revival.
Last year's Grammy-nominated John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and the eclectic steampunk jazz of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society are just two recent examples, and a triple bill at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday night headlined by the venerable Count Basie Orchestra honored the form's rich history while also showing where it stands in the present.
In a rumpled shirt and straw hat fit for a Brooklyn block party, downtown New York trumpeter Dave Douglas showed a different side to his always eclectic tastes, leading his band through fluid, expansive selections from A Single Sky," an album released last year that was Douglas' first big band recording.
Arranged by keyboardist Bill McNeely, Douglas' lyrical set departed from the usual big band sound with energetic flashes of Latin jazz and funk, gaining strength as it slowed to an atmospheric purr for the evocative The Persistence of Memory." With the bandstand bathed in red light, Douglas and crew took the Bowl to a dark, noirish place highlighted by a giggling, gurgling trombone solo by Ed Neumeister, whose deft work with a mute had his horn occasionally resembling Peter Frampton's talk box.
Dave Holland is already a member of jazz royalty for his days with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew" ensemble as well as his own landmark recording Conference of the Birds," and the bassist's long-running smaller ensemble has been one of the most lethal combos in jazz for years. Yet surprisingly, when the group expands to a big band format, its sound features the nimble, democratic interplay of a band half its size. Led by the ticking marimba work of longtime Holland band mate Steve Nelson, Last Minute Man" had all the smoothly sinister atmosphere of a spy movie theme, and a reworked How's Never?" from this year's live album by Holland's octet, Pathways," motored with the compact tension of a coiled spring. Holland introduced the down-and-dirty Blues for C.M." as a tribute to jazz visionary Charles Mingus. It featured saxophonist Antonio Hart in a gritty, electrifying solo that had people talking well into intermission.
With so much energy and adventure as a lead-in, the night downshifted into nostalgia with the Count Basie Orchestra. In its staggering 75th year (26 of them since the death of its namesake bandleader), the CBO was certainly a favorite of the below-capacity crowd as it touched on deep swinging classics. And while there's no begrudging a legendary band that helped define such a vital era, the group was difficult to appreciate as much more than a pleasant tribute act as it coursed through standards such as the elastic Corner Pocket" and April in Paris." Carlin may have been right with regard to Basie's heyday, but as always with jazz, bygone eras never really go away. They just keep moving forward.