Progressive Big Band

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There are two big band genres at JMA; Big Band and Progressive Big Band. Although the term "progressive" might imply that the latter genre is more demanding and complex than the former, this is not always the case. Instead, Progressive Big Band is a term developed in the 1950s to refer to big band music that was not meant for dancing and entertainment, but instead was meant for listening to in a manner more similar to concert hall music. Other than that, the term "progressive" does not imply any sort of definable musical superiority.

Music found in the Progressive Big Band genre at JMA may have ambitions similar to lengthy concert hall pieces, and may also feature elements of the avant-garde and other modern tendencies. The Progressive Big Band genre begins with some extended works by Duke Ellington in the 1940s. Other early pioneers in this genre include; Stan Kenton, Sun Ra, David Amram, Gil Evans, Toshiko Akyoshi, Carla Bley, Don Ellis and others.

progressive big band top albums

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CHARLES MINGUS The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady Album Cover The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
CHARLES MINGUS
4.78 | 74 ratings
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ANDREW HILL Passing Ships Album Cover Passing Ships
ANDREW HILL
4.78 | 9 ratings
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TOSHIKO AKIYOSHI Long Yellow Road Album Cover Long Yellow Road
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4.98 | 4 ratings
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SUN RA Angels and Demons at Play Album Cover Angels and Demons at Play
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4.74 | 8 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Ellington Uptown (aka Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown) Album Cover Ellington Uptown (aka Hi-Fi Ellington Uptown)
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4.89 | 4 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Such Sweet Thunder Album Cover Such Sweet Thunder
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5.00 | 3 ratings
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CHARLES MINGUS Let My Children Hear Music Album Cover Let My Children Hear Music
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4.50 | 18 ratings
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SUN RA Space Is the Place Album Cover Space Is the Place
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4.50 | 10 ratings
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KAMASI WASHINGTON Heaven & Earth Album Cover Heaven & Earth
KAMASI WASHINGTON
4.60 | 5 ratings
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DUKE ELLINGTON Black, Brown and Beige Album Cover Black, Brown and Beige
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4.60 | 5 ratings
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DON ELLIS Live at Monterrey Album Cover Live at Monterrey
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DAVE HOLLAND Dave Holland Big Band ‎: What Goes Around Album Cover Dave Holland Big Band ‎: What Goes Around
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This list is in progress since the site is new. We invite all logged in members to use the "quick rating" widget (stars bellow album covers) or post full reviews to increase the weight of your rating in the global average value (see FAQ for more details). Enjoy JMA!

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progressive big band Music Reviews

CLARE FISCHER Thesaurus (aka 'Twas Only Yesterday)

Album · 1969 · Progressive Big Band
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Its kind of interesting how some great jazz musicians get slated for immortality and some do not. Clare Fischer was a top notch modern big band arranger, if he is not in the same class as Gil Evans, Don Ellis or Quincy Jones, he is very close, yet you don’t hear about him near as much as the others. Part of Clare’s problem is that he was putting out big band, Latin and post bop albums during an era when record companies were banking all their money on fusion acts with rock star vibes. Yes, Clare looks pretty conservative on the cover of “Thesaurus”, but the music contained herein is just as dynamic and creative as anyone else during this era. Fischer is also an accomplished writer as well as arranger, with four songs on “Thesaurus” written by himself, as well as two by his brother, trumpeter Stewart Fischer.

Side one opens up with “The Duke”, with Clare making it clear that the Duke is one of his favorite arrangers and the tune does carry some Ellington influence, but with a larger brass section than the Duke usually had. The Latin flavored “Miles Behind” does not seem to channel Miles Davis much, with trumpeter Conte Candoli turning in a bright solo that is almost the opposite of Miles. The top track of side one though is Lennie Tristan’s “Lennie’s Pennies”, a brilliant tune that takes bebop to a new modernist level. This is also Fischer’s best arrangement with Gary Foster and Warne Marsh presenting very different takes on this song’s interpretation.

Top tracks on side two include “Bitter Leaf”, a moody tone poem that features Clare’s impressionistic electric piano blending with the tone colors of his band in a style almost more French impressionism than jazz. Also noteworthy is his arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s complex, yet swinging, “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”. The album closes with a brief but moving ballad dedicated to the then recently assassinated Kennedy brothers. Fans of big band arranging from the 60s to today should take note, Clare Fischer’s “Thesaurus” rates up there with the best of them.

DON ELLIS Soaring

Album · 1973 · Progressive Big Band
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Don Ellis’ “Soaring” is another one of those albums that is a tale of two sides, with one side being quite different from the other. Side one of this album is classic Don Ellis high energy modern big band music with ambitious arrangements, lots of odd-metered rhythms, electronic effects and screaming solos. Side two, instead, centers more around ballads and pop type material. The whole album is worth a listen, but I bet most Ellis fans are going to gravitate to side one. A big plus on this album is Bulgarian keyboardist Milcho Leviev who shares Don’s enthusiasm for complex arrangements, odd metered rhythms and wild solos enhanced with electronics. Milcho was always Don’s most valuable sideman.

Some highlights on side one include Milcho’s “Sladka Pitka” which features Bulgarian rhythms and Leviev’s crazed solo on an electric piano enhanced with wah wah effects. Ellis’ “The Devil Made Me Write this Piece” features African rhythms and Don himself taking a drum solo. Side one closes with “Go Back Home”, a foot stomping soul jazz rave up that was a crowd favorite. Throughout this side Don delivers many hair raising solos on the trumpet showing he ranked with the best of the day. In fact, this album may be the one album of his that best showcases his soloing abilities.

“Invincible” opens side two and is probably the best track on this side. It starts as a ballad but then builds, guided by Vince Denham’s powerful sax solo, as it goes through constant modulations and then a classic Don Ellis false ending. The rest of this side is taken by two ballads that are quite sentimental by Ellis standards. I think this album was intended to include all the fan favorites, so that might explain the more pop oriented material. One other track on this side, “Sidonie”, brings back the Bulgarian rhythms and energy, but it lacks the luster of the tracks on the first side. Its kind of convenient the way they split the music on this album, I will probably spin side one now and again, but its possible I may never give side two another listen. Not that it is so bad, but its not what I would normally be drawn to in a Don Ellis recording.

MILES DAVIS Quiet Nights

Album · 1963 · Progressive Big Band
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“ Quiet Nights” could have been a much better album, but unfortunately the meddling greed of Columbia never let this project develop naturally. Miles and Gil had a sincere interest in Brazilian music and put together a couple of art pop covers of Brazilian songs which Columbia jumped on in an attempt to ride the new Bossa Nova fad. The songs did not make the pop charts so the whole project was shelved for a while. Later Miles and Gil recorded several more songs in a Brazilian style and then again the project sat for a while. At a later date, in an anxious move to satisfy the suits at Colombia, Theo Macero dug up a ballad Miles had recorded with his previous combo, slapped that with the other tunes and released the album which now contained only 25 minutes of music. Miles was quite angry with the move and broke relations with Macero and Columbia for some time.

It’s a shame that it turned out as it did because much of the music on “Quiet Nights” is excellent. Most, but not all, of the tunes are complex and interesting, and Gil Evan’s orchestrations are as imaginative as ever, while Miles delivers one soliloquy after another in some of the better ballad playing of his life. The album’s mix of jazz and lounge sensibilities foreshadow the modern era of ambient nu jazz, and this album has a strong following amongst fans of 60s exotica. In another bad moment of commercialism, Columbia touts this album on its back cover notes as being a Bossa Nova album, but although it is very Brazilian, standard Bossa Nova it isn’t.

One issue with this album that I have never seen raised before is the high volume at which the trumpet is mixed. Miles is front and center and quite a bit louder than the orchestra background and the frustratingly faint percussion. In the era when this was recorded, popular ballad instrumentals, often played by a tenor sax, sounded better coming out of a car dashboard speaker if there was not too much orchestral clutter. Possibly this is the sound they were going for. Still, I think some of tone colors might have sounded more interesting if there had been more of an attempt to blend Miles with Gil’s imaginative orchestrations.

NIKOLOV-IVANOVIĆ UNDECTET Frame and Curiosity (feat. Magic Malik)

Album · 2019 · Progressive Big Band
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“Frame and Curiosity” is the second album by the Nikolov-Ivanovic Undectet, and it finds them following a similar formula as their first one, modern big band arrangements guided by Balkan rhythms and melodies, although to many, the Balkan influences might not seem so obvious at first. Vladimir Nikolov handles the arrangements and piano, while Srdjan Ivanovic guides the band from the drum set. The two also wrote all of the original material. The group is fleshed out with a wide array of instruments including three saxophones, a horn quartet and accordion, plus special guest Magic Malik on flute. Magic makes for an excellent addition as he provides some of the most creative solos and adds a bright sound color to the arrangements. Although some jazz flautists can sound a bit shrill at times, Malik gets a strong deep sound from his flute that can hold its own against busy horn charts.

The three tracks that open the album are possibly the strongest, and although the press kit review from Jazz Times sites Gil Evans and Maria Schneider, I’m hearing a lot of classic Don Ellis. The odd-metered East European rhythms topped with complex and busy horn workouts recall Don’s ground breaking concert and recording at Monterrey. Maybe no one remembers Ellis anymore … sad. The rest of the album features some impressionistic ballads, a rock influenced track called “Anonymous”, a slight Latin flavor on “Carefree” and one more ambitious big band excursion titled “Sade Sati”. Jazz’s dance floor era passed long ago, but big bands are back more than ever as creative arrangers seek new sounds and tone colors. Fans of the modern big band sound should find much to like on “Frame and Curiosity”.

GIL EVANS The Gil Evans Orchestra Play the Music of Jimi Hendrix

Album · 1974 · Progressive Big Band
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When The “Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix” came out in the early 70s, it was a big deal, and for good reason too. Attempts to merge heavy rock and orchestral music were still a new thing then and many attempts at such a merger were often a clumsy mess. Gil was given much well deserved praise in that he quite successfully took the music of Jimi Hendrix and gave it a big band treatment that somehow managed to capture the best of both the rock and big band jazz worlds. Flash forward several decades to today and this album still holds up, but since it became a blueprint for others to follow, its rockin big band sounds are hardly unusual anymore. Late night entertainment shows such as Saturday Night Live and David Letterman have been featuring big bands playing classic rock and RnB tunes for some time now and several tracks on the ‘Evans Plays Hendrix’ album sound like they would fit in well during a commercial break while Paul Shaffer or G.E. Smith is trying to keep the audience hyped.

Opening track, “Angel”, is probably the one closest to a late night break rave up, especially since it features the sax melody and solo of David Sanborn, the owner of one of the most imitated horn sounds on late night TV. “Cross Town Traffic” and “Foxey Lady” are the other two that also fall more in this direction. “Castles Made of Sand” is the first track to really head in an interesting and alternative direction as Evans introduces counter melodies that hang like dissonant clouds and totally transform the song. “Up from the Skies” is essentially a jazz song to begin with, which might explain why it works so well as Evans once again produces an appealing murkiness that takes the track towards exotic Sun Ra territory. “1983 - A Merman I Should Turn to Be” is also given an interesting facelift as it becomes a spaghetti western movie theme. The least successful track is “Voodoo Chile”, whose melody is played by Howard Johnson who sounds like he is humming through his horn producing a non-appealing kazoo type sound.

This is a Gil Evans album, so the performances and orchestrations are outstanding, its just that this album probably would have aged better if he had gone more in the experimental direction, and less in the rockin direction.

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