Thad Jones/Mel Lewis: 1966


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The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra is considered by many to be the last great virtuoso big band. Launched in 1966 at the Village Vanguard, the orchestra was loaded with superstars and stylists and featured many arrangements by Thad Jones. The early lineup included Jones and Lewis along with pianist Hank Jones, saxophonists Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion and Joe Farrell; trumpeters Jimmy Nottingham, Danny Stiles and Snooky Young; valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and others.

I've always been on the fence about the band. While I fully appreciate the exceptional talent assembled and that this was orchestral jazz, not pop contrivance, much of the music for me lacked a compelling narrative and seemed more of a musician's idea of a great idea than a listener's dream. Too much of the music seemed circuitous in its brassiness and never seemed to go anyplace special. Or, put differently, I never felt moved enough to join the journey. [Photo above: Thad Jones]

Maybe that's just me, since I've always found the Gerry Mulligan Concert Band to be similarly flat and wind-baggy in the story department. Loads of talent but more about musicians impressing musicians than performing for people in the seats or buying records. No one is demanding the recordings be pulled from the shelves. I just never found much to grab on to with either band. [Photo above: Mel Lewis]

So I approached All My Yesterdays, the new double-CD set from Resonance featuring the TJML Orchestra's debut recordings in 1966 at the Village Vanguard, with some trepidation. Was I being too hard on the band after all these years? The answer is mixed. While I still find much of the music a case of cold fish, there are tracks of beauty here. Lover Man, for example, with Farrell soloing on tenor, is out of the park. The richness of his tone and how he takes apart the song and re-assembles it is remarkable. Don't Ever Leave Me, a beautiful Thad Jones original and arrangement, is richly elegant, with Stiles on trumpet and Farrell on flute. And there are a handful of other gems, like All My Yesterdays, which is delightfully orchestrated. 

But far too many of the songs open with a piano intro that lasts way too long and then fail to make a cogent point once the horns chime in. But if you're a fan of the TJML Orchestra, you'll flip over the new set. The sound restoration by George Klabin and Fran Gala is exceptional and makes the recording sound as if these guys are in the room with you. It's also music that has never before been heard, so there recording has historic importance.

Jazz in 1966 was struggling to find something new to say as it tried to free itself from the quicksand of pop-rock and soul. This band illustrates that struggle well. I'm just not sure the band's original orchestral purpose or its instrumental wheel-spinning holds together after all these years. I know how beloved this band is, so it's probably just me.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra's All My Yesterdays here. The set comes with an 89-page book filled with detail, notes and interviews.

JazzWax clip: Here's the TJML Orchestra on Jazz Casual, hosted by Ralph J. Gleason, in 1968...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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