In December 1910, Virginia Woolf once observed, human character changed and, along with it, so did everything else. Politics, society, religion, sex, all of it, she thought, would leave the ancien regime behind. And, to a point, she was correct. Within a few years, the old world was gone, swept away by war and revolution. It was not coming back. Ever.
Somehow, listening to the marvelous musical products of modern big bands, Woolf seems oddly relevant. The level of musicianship, even compared to what could be found 30 or 40 years ago, forget the Dark Ages of the Swing Era, has simply gone somewhere else. Occasionally, listening to the ensemble and section work in this extraordinary group of players, one thinks this might have been possible only with the absolutely top East or West coast musicians in the 1950s or 1960s—and, for the record, most of these players lay claim to a similar title and status today—but something has changed, and it is not just chops or even arranging prowess. Possibly some readers can actually remember hearing Harry James or Duke Ellington up close and personal, Woody Herman too. For many, including a lot of would-be musicians, there were life-changing experiences. It was not just a question of celebrity, or big personalities, or even bigger foibles. Not all of these bands put a premium on excitement, but, consciously or not, the excitement enabled the emotional connection. And for many, even after the players and the music were long gone, the emotional connection remained.
To be sure, Dave Slonaker's Big Band is something else. The playing is immaculate, the arrangements, when they are intended to be swinging, swing. When they are intended to be thoughtful, they are thoughtful. Considering the circumstances of the pandemic under which this was recorded, the results are little short of miraculous. Yet there is something missing here. Excitement, for want of a better word. And this is not a commentary only on this particular recording, arranger, or band. It seems more generally true of big bands one is lucky enough to hear. When did big band jazz get such good manners? When did it become so tasteful, academic even? Maybe it started in the 1960s, although attending something like Villanova's Intercollege Jazz Festival in the mid 1960s (where Stan Kenton held court) never seemed exactly sedate. Quite the contrary. Not every band was tight, people missed entrances, intonation was occasionally dicey. But there was usually plenty of excitement.
It is, of course, possible that excitement accompanies inspired amateurism, because the unexpected—good or bad—often defines the term. And the musicians in this band are the furthest thing from amateurs, Heaven knows. And yet there only seem to be one or two places where things really take off. "Duelity," that features Ron Stout and Bob Sheppard is one of them. That is a piece commissioned by Vince de Martino and Miles Osland for the University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble, and it moves. Not quite the same as Terry Gibbs' Dream Band shouting out encouragement to Joe Maini and Charlie Kennedy, but it gets the heart pumping. "And Now the News" is another, featuring the trombone section, and a killer section it is. Is it any coincidence that this piece is modeled off a classic 1960s recording 'bone-heavy record by Tutti Camarata, where the trombone royalty of the day blew the roof off. Slonaker mentions it too as "one of my most worn records in high school.
Times, for sure, have changed. Much for the better in many ways, of course. But in others, it is a much closer call.
This is an absolute model of what a modern big band can produce. It may not be for every one, but then again, neither was the twentieth century, and that is not coming back either. For better or worse. Maybe both.