Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Birth of an Orchestra

As I write this, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is in the midst of an 8-day run at the place where it was born 50 years ago this week.  On February 7, 1966, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, all 18 of them, marched downstairs to the Village Vanguard in New York City, set up their equipment all across the tiny stage and in front of it.  At approximately 10:20 p.m., Mr. Jones raised his hands, the band hit the first notes and the rest is history. Quite a history indeed!

It's not the TJ/MLJO was under-recorded in the 11 years the duo ran the ensemble (or since) but Resonance Records and its founder George Klabin has given us a most informative look at the beginnings of the phenomenon.   "All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings At The Village Vanguard" is a 2-CD set (with a wonderful 92-page booklet featuring interviews with a number of the original members and others) with the first album coming from the orchestra's first-ever night at the famed NYC nightclub and the second disk from a Monday night 6 weeks later. And these really are the "debut" sets as the aggregation's first trip to the recording studio did not take place until May of 1966 and the official "Live from The Vanguard" did not happen until April of 1967.

As I wrote in my preview of this album several weeks ago (read it here), Klabin was a student at Columbia University and already quite a sound engineer. For recording the band (as Jones & Lewis were shopping for a recording contract), the engineer received permission to play the tapes on his radio show on WKCR-FM.  Due to several technical issues, Klabin was not able to cleanly record the two sets on "opening night" but what he did get illustrates a number of impressive and important aspects of the Jazz Orchestra.  Among them are 1) - Jones' arrangements for the ensemble built and expanded upon the work he had done for Count Basie, 2) - the rhythm section of Richard Davis (bass), brother Hank Jones (piano), Sam Herman (guitar, percussion, and Mr. Lewis (drums) and 3) - this group of instrumentalists brought great joy every time they hit the stage. (Many of the musician in the band played in studio orchestras during the day and on weekends - those were the day when the 3 major networks all had variety shows that needed live music. Those who played in Broadway pit orchestras had Mondays off.)  The program opens with Jerry Dodgion's alto saxophone all by himself playing a sweet blues improvisation and then the band enters to play "Back Bone." The piece swing with abandon, slowing down for a trombone interlude with Bob Brookmeyer and Garnett Brown sparring, dipping and moaning before Lewis shows why he is considered such a great drummer - his solo is short, built off the melody (just listen), and kicks the band back into high gear.  The title track is next, a sweet ballad (composed by Jones), and shows off the brilliant section writing that remains a hallmark of the Orchestra.  There are moments throughout the 2 disks when the reeds move like birds in flight, swooping in and around the powerful brass. (A quick note about Sam Herman - you rarely if ever hears his guitar playing.  Mostly you can hear his percussion work on shakers, etc.  His main contribution to the band was a copyist, copying and cleaning up Jones' sheet music. When he retired from the bandstand, Jones never hired another guitarist.  Herman also worked with the Count Basie Band and with Quincy Jones.)

Disk 2 is chock-full of music (nearly 118 minutes) and you can now hear a band starting to hit its stride.  They still play with abandon, with unabashed glee and execute the hair-pin turns in the music without a glitch. There are a few more ballads in the mix including the samba-influenced "Don't Ever Leave Me" featuring strong solos from pianist Jones, Joe Farrell (on flute) and trumpeter Danny Stiles (who played in place of Snooky Young).  Another change from opening night is that Brookmeyer is replaced by Tom McIntosh whose stunning solo on "Willow Weep For Me" (a Brookmeyer arrangement ) stands out as does Jones' playful opening lines  (he starts out quoting "I've Got Plenty of Nothin'") and subsequent solo.  "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" stands out because the Orchestra mostly sits out as Hank Jones explores the lovely melody (Davis and Lewis join him halfway through and the reeds enter right at the end.)  Farrell steps out on tenor saxophone for a heart-felt reading and emotional solo of/on "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?"He also stands out on "All My Yesterdays" following a lovely short solo from Jimmy Owens (trumpet)  - it's fascinating to hear how Lewis works with the arranger Jones to control the dynamics of the band.

The sound quality is splendid throughout (Klabin worked with his resident audio/video engineer Fran Gala on the sound restoration and Gala did the mastering).  It really does feel as if you are sitting in the midst of the band. You can't help but hear Thad Jones as he exhorts his hand-picked band and he gets a number of solos and it helps remind one what a strong soloist he was. Also, Mel Lewis (his brushes-work is so amazing) and Richard Davis (who most people knew as a small-group participant) are quite clear throughout.

"All My Yesterdays" is a delight from beginning to end. Opening and closing with "Back Bone" (smart programming as the 2 versions - both delightful - shows how quickly the group gelled, the album serves to remind us Thad Jones bent the template for big bands, creating melodies as sophisticated as Duke Ellington atop rhythms as bluesy as Count Basie with section writing beholden to no one.  Best of all, the music that Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra plays on these 2 Mondays from early 1966 sounds as contemporary as it did when it was created.

For more information, go to For more history, go to

The personnel on the 2-disk set is as follows:
Thad Jones (trumpet, flugelhorn, arranger, conductor)
Mel Lewis (drums)
Hank Jones (piano)
Sam Herman (guitar, percussion)
Richard Davis (bass)
Jerome Richardson (alto saxophone, clarinet, flute)
Jerry Dodgion (alto saxophone, clarinet, flute)
Joe Farrell (tenor saxophone, clarinet, flute)
Eddie Daniels (tenor saxophone, clarinet)
Marv "Doc" Holladay (baritone saxophone on CD 1)
Pepper Adams (baritone saxophone on CD 2)
Jimmy Nottingham (trumpet)
Jimmy Owens (trumpet)
Bill Berry (trumpet)
Snooky Young (trumpet on CD 1)
Danny Stiles (trumpet on CD 2)
Garnett Brown (trombone)
Cliff Heather (trombone)
Jack Rains (trombone)
Bob Brookmeyer (trombone on CD 1)
Tom McIntosh (trombone on CD 2)

No comments:

Post a Comment