Progressive Big Band

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The Progressive Big Band genre is for post-swing era jazz bands who incorporate more modern elements into their music. Some of these elements might include, modern extended harmonies, electronic instruments and effects, fusion based rhythms and avant-garde arrangements.

The first progressive tendencies in big band arranging begin with Duke Ellington and come to full flower in the hands of arrangers such as Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Gil Evans and Don Ellis.

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SUN RA Angels and Demons at Play Album Cover Angels and Demons at Play
4.93 | 6 ratings
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ANDREW HILL Passing Ships Album Cover Passing Ships
4.94 | 5 ratings
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CHARLES MINGUS Let My Children Hear Music Album Cover Let My Children Hear Music
4.83 | 14 ratings
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DAVE HOLLAND What Goes Around Album Cover What Goes Around
4.96 | 4 ratings
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SUN RA Space Is the Place Album Cover Space Is the Place
4.86 | 7 ratings
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TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI Long Yellow Road Album Cover Long Yellow Road
5.00 | 3 ratings
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DON ELLIS Autumn Album Cover Autumn
4.85 | 4 ratings
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SUN RA Lanquidity Album Cover Lanquidity
4.75 | 9 ratings
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SAM RIVERS Inspiration Album Cover Inspiration
5.00 | 2 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Such Sweet Thunder Album Cover Such Sweet Thunder
5.00 | 2 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Ellington Uptown (aka Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown) Album Cover Ellington Uptown (aka Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown)
4.95 | 2 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Black, Brown and Beige Album Cover Black, Brown and Beige
4.75 | 4 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Ellington Uptown (aka Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown)

Album · 1951 · Progressive Big Band
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We don’t normally think of Duke Ellington as an LP oriented sort of artist, much of his best music came out before the LP existed, and once it became the medium of choice, Ellington was beginning to lean on recording his past hits. One notable exception is “Ellington Uptown”, one of the earlier ‘long playing’ albums Duke ever recorded, and it’s a power packed release laden with fine gems. Alongside “Such Sweet Thunder” and “Newport 56”, “Ellington Uptown” is possibly the best LP of Duke’s lengthy career. As if the original LP wasn’t already good enough, the 2004 CD re-issue added the excellent “Controversial Suite” and “The Liberian Suite” to make it ‘the one Ellington CD you should own if only own one‘.

Even without the two added suites, the original album carries an excellent variety of material. Album opener “Skin Deep” is a flamboyant mini concerto for jazz drums that features Louie Bellson and his newly invented double bass drum. The power and volume of this piece was once considered a good test for a hi-fi system. “The Mooche” follows with some classic Ellington styled slinky noire minor key chords and crying vocal like horns. The double clarinet solo has one clarinet drenched in reverb for an interesting proto-exotica effect.

“Take the ‘A’ Train” is probably one of the most overplayed songs in jazz history, and its often subjected to unimaginative heavy handed arrangements that sound nothing like the subtle and charming version on here. Betty Roche’s vocals are light and sexy and display the modern bop influence of the time. Scat singing is often the dreaded bane of the jazz world, but that’s because most can’t do it like Betty with her effortless flow of onomatopoeia cool. “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”, which follows, is one of Ellington’s most ambitious works ever. It’s a thirteen and a half minute 3rd stream type construction that seeks to rush someone through Harlem at night where they will hear a variety of musical styles, often jammed right up next to each other. Of all of Ellington’s work’s in this direction, “Tone” is probably the best at showing true concert hall type development, as it often can remind one of a work by Stravinsky or Gershwin.

“Uptown” closes with classic rave up Ellington swing in the name of “Perdido”, thus completing the entire picture and including at least one example for all of Ellington’s major styles. As mentioned earlier, the CD re-issue also includes two more suites. “The Controversial Suite” was Ellington’s satirical shot at the musical arguments of the day that tended to pit modernist boppers against traditional Dixieland revivalists, tired arguments that exist in similar forms today. Turning both sides of the argument upside down, Ellington’s suite jumps from style to style so that all bases are covered from early New Orleans to modern avant-garde, all tongue-in-cheek. Finally we get to “The Liberian Suite”, which is practically a mini-album in itself and also one of Ellington’s top creations.

DUKE ELLINGTON Such Sweet Thunder

Album · 1957 · Progressive Big Band
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If ever there was a record where you want the original vinyl over the CD re-issue, “Such Sweet Thunder” is the one. After scoring a major coupe with their CD re-issue miraculous re-creation of Ellington’s 56 Newport concert, Columbia turned around and dropped the ball big time on their re-issue of “Thunder” by accidentally editing out key parts of Clark Terry’s famous trumpet soliloquy. An unforgivable mistake, it will be interesting to see what eventually happens with that CD. Meanwhile, I recently visited the local used record shop and picked up a vinyl copy of “Thunder“ (famous high quality ’6-eye’ Columbia label) in very good condition at a very reasonable price.

Of all the various Duke Ellington 3rd stream style ‘suites’ and other progressive big band projects, “Such Sweet Thunder” is probably his most successful. Its not his most experimental or ambitious collection, but probably his most coherent, and therein lies this album’s ability to keep the listener engaged. Billy Strayhorn also wrote and arranged much of this, and maybe someday he will get a much deserved co-billing. Although not labeled a suite, “Thunder” has much in common with late 19th century exotic Euro-Asian suites by composers like Grieg, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Much like those composer’s colorful suites, “Thunder” is made up of short vibrant orchestral pieces that contrast with each other in sequence, but eventually add up to a logical whole.

Although Ellington and Strayhorn worked very much in a jazz context, in many ways their strengths and contributions to music put them more in line with those who can take a short pop piece and elevate it to high art. Its easy to see Ellington/Strayhorn as the beginning of a line that will progress through Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones, and then on to Brian Wilson, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and more. Each one of the pieces on “Sweet Thunder” is like a unique gem, complete in itself, yet an integral part of the whole collection. I hesitate to use the word ‘charming’ as it can sound shallow, but these little instrumentals can be hella charming and not the least bit glib or shallow.

So many highlights to point out here; album opener and title song “Such Sweet Thunder” is classic Ellington with dark noire chords, swingin burlesque beat and wailing plunger horns, while follow up “Sonnet for Ceaser” is all about 3rd stream style abstract orchestral colors. Possibly the best pieces appear on side two with Strayhorn’s slinky mystical ballad, “The Star-Crossed Lovers”, and the exotic pseudo African colors of “Half the Fun”. The album closes with the up-tempo bop fire of “Circle of Fourths”, a bluesy riff that keeps modulating upwards until they’ve covered all twelve keys, all of this in only a couple of minutes.

This is an excellent album and a must have for fans of Ellington’s artsy side, just beware of the recent CD re-issue, there are a lot of unhappy customers out there.

GIL EVANS Out of the Cool

Album · 1961 · Progressive Big Band
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After three very successful albums with Miles Davis, Gil Evans set out on his own again and came up with this excellent set of groovy orchestrations called “Out of the Cool”. Unlike many other big band arrangers, Gil Evans does not try to literally blow you away with screaming horn ensemble passages and other sorts of fireworks, instead, subtlety and an almost effortless nonchalance are all a big part of what makes Evans’ music unique and attractive. Evan’s orchestrations sound like no one else, the tendency towards smeared murkiness and weird undercurrents may sometimes recall Ellington or Sun Ra, but other than that, there are not many others to compare against. A few years before "Out of the Cool" came out, the young Quincy Jones had emerged with a new big band sound that was bright, crisp and featured razor sharp ensemble playing, Evan’s more quirky, laid back and personally odd approach made for an interesting contrast to all that.

“Out of the Cool” opens with “La Nevada”, which is basically a long modal jam session on which Evans mostly stays out of the way while the soloists play excellent solos in a very relaxed and personal style that reflects the Evan’s approach. After this lengthy workout, the first side closes with the ballad “Where Flamingos Fly”, which is nicely played by trombonist Jimmy Knepper while Evans constantly shifts the harmonic and rhythmic background in subtle ways. Side two opens with Kurt Weil’s “Bilbao”, on which bassist Ron Carter carries much of the melody while being surrounded by horn dissonances that hang in the air while odd home-made percussion rumbles in the background. This side continues with one of those George Russell experimental numbers that combine modern concert hall structures with walking blues. While the soloists dig into the blues, the rhythm section keeps shifting in and out of double time and sometimes the bass is replaced with a walking trombone. The album closes with an Evan’s original, “Sunken Treasure”, which has Johnny Coles playing a trumpet solo over what sounds like a closing theme from a movie. You could see a piece like this having a big influence on Henry Threadgill.

Gil Evans is a tough artist to write about, its hard to explain why his orchestrations sound like no one else, you’ll just have to listen for yourself. One of the biggest compliments I could pay this album is that this music still sounds very modern today, and will probably continue to sound that way for a long time. Fans of modern orchestration from a jazz viewpoint will definitely want to get this.

ALAN SILVA The Shout (Portrait For A Small Woman)

Album · 1979 · Progressive Big Band
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Ten years after his legendary debut ("excellent" or "unacceptably chaotic cacophony", depending on the listener's taste) Alan Silva released his third studio album (and first studio recording in ten years) entitled "The Shout (Portrait for a Small Woman)".

At that time, Silva was working as a teacher in the Institute for Art, Culture, and Perception in Paris, and the material comes mostly from his teaching work. He doesn't play any instruments on "The Shout", but instead leads a 21-piece orchestra that is a combination of Silva's "Celestrial Communications Orchestra" plus his students. Silva wrote and arranged all the music and he conducts the orchestra as well.

Musically, this album is not similar to his debut, at least not from the first spin. Seven well structured, completely pre-composed tunes, all under 10 minutes long, are rooted in Ellingtonian tradition and post-bop. But during the listening one can easily hear Silva's background as a late 60s unorthodox experimentalist. All the arrangements contain that non-conformist, even chaotic element, coming from his debut, just here it is presented in a the form of modern European classical composition.

Among the orchestra members, I found just a few known names (at least for me); trumpeters Itaru Oki and Bernard Vitet, and drummer Muhammad Ali are among them, but in all, this collective sounds very professional and inspired playing quite complex compositions.

Much more accessible than the early Silva works, this album still contains lot of his extravaganza, so it could be easily recommended as an entry point. At the same time, it's a great (if obscure) addition to Silva's quite limited collection of releases.


Album · 1949 · Progressive Big Band
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Duke Ellington was such a prolific composer and performer that there are bound to be some overlooked gems in his vast recorded arsenal, and such is the case with “The Liberian Suite”, recorded in late 1947 and released in 1949. This suite was commissioned by the government of Liberia, who were celebrating the 100 year anniversary of their founding by freed slaves from the US. The original “Liberian Suite” was initially released by itself on a 10" LP. Later it was teamed with “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” for release on a 12” LP. After that, “Liberian Suite” was not re-issued often until recently when Columbia included it on their CD re-issue of “Ellington Uptown”.

“Liberian Suite” is not one of Ellington’s most ambitious works, especially compared to the “Black Brown and Beige Suite” that preceded it, and “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” that will follow in a few years. Instead, the ideas on “Liberian” are more direct and easier to absorb, creating a work that is more cohesive and easier to follow than some of Ellington’s more sprawling musical architectures. That’s what is special about this suite, it really works and it really connects with the listener. As is usual with all of Ellington’s ‘suites’, “Liberian” does not follow classical forms or imitate the classical composer’s tendency toward thematic development and recapitulation, instead, this piece wanders from one idea to the next, but with a creative flow that makes total sense and keeps the listener thoroughly engaged. Its hard to think of another composer who can work with such constant forward motion and still come up with something this logical and coherent.

As is usual, Duke’s band is outstanding on here. Ellington was smart enough to pay his men better than most, insuring that he had a very cohesive unit made up of musicians who were often with him for several decades. There are many highlights on here, Al Hibbler’s understated and thoughtful vocal delivery on the semi-mystical “I Like the Sunrise”, and Tyree Glenn’s exotic vibraphone solo on “Dance Number 2” are both worth mentioning. Another top contribution is Sonny Greer’s imaginative tympani playing that drives the band with a mix of African and western symphonic musicality. There are so many more inspired musicians and moments on here that is pointless to list them all, but to sum up, this music was ahead of its time then, and will continue to be so for many years to come. No one else in the world sounds like this. Its also worth mentioning that no doubt Ellington’s very important co-contributor, Billy Strayhorn, had much to do with the writing and arranging on here.

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