The end of the big band era was marked by the emergence of the small combo playing be-bop, thus the idea of a big band playing bop seemed ironic at best, and impossible at worst. Many critics felt the big band format would prove too cumbersome for the new fleeter style, but undaunted, Dizzy Gillespie went ahead and put together a very successful big band in the new idiom. “Dizzy Gillespie in Concert” is a very early Gillespie big band recording (1948), but it was not released until 1954. This was his band’s first appearance on the west coast and the excitement shows in the performances and in the enthusiastic crowd reactions. I’m sure the concert was great, but unfortunately this recording isn't. The soloists come through pretty clearly, and the rhythm section isn’t too bad, but the ensemble horns sound distant, and sometimes barely audible. Even by the standards of live recordings in the late 40s, this isn't great. In all fairness though, some people really enjoy this record, despite the sound.
The tunes on here feature well known Gillespie crowd pleasers. Possibly Dizzy felt that since the big band itself was a risk, he might as well go with material people already knew. The arrangements lean heavily on Dizzy’s role models, Ellington and Basie, but the fiery horn lines in odd rhythms reflect Gillespie’s interest in Machito and other Afro-Cuban band leaders. Dizzy takes this material and modernizes it with the fire of bop. The rapid high pitched unison horn lines foreshadow the coming of macho horn sections such as the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Bill Chase. As mentioned earlier, the recorded sound of the ensemble work is often murky or vague, but the soloists come through loud and clear. Along with Gillespie on horn, you get three great saxophonists, James Moody, Cecil Payne and Ernie Henry. The main co-star though is Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, who drives the band with syncopated double time rhythms. Pozo’s presence in general helps add to the already present Afro-Cuban flavor in Gillespie’s arrangements.
A lengthy song with “humorous” scat vocals and other occasional cheezy displays of obvious humor may not be to everyone’s taste. As mentioned earlier, there is a crowd pleasing element to this show, but big band bop is never profitable or commercial by a long shot. The potential buyer needs to weigh which one trumps: good music or bad recording.