On Monday nights during the early and mid-’80s, Seventh Avenue South, a small stretch of road in New York’s Greenwich Village, was a big-band-lover’s paradise. At the north end of the block, downstairs inside the Village Vanguard, the stage featured the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble that Mr. Lewis, a drummer, founded with the great trumpeter and arranger Thad Jones in 1965. The band swung hard with long, passionate solos that sometimes embraced tenets of the ’60s avant-garde.
Jones had left his band in 1978 and passed away in 1986; after Lewis died in 1990, the band became known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, often under the leadership of pianist Jim McNeely. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra is celebrating 50 years at its Monday-night home with a new release, “All My Yesterdays” (Resonance, Feb. 19 release), that captures the early sound of the band. A new big-band recording, “The Distance” (ECM, Feb. 12 release), by bassist Michael Formanek offers a strikingly contemporary take on some of the Jones/Lewis band’s cornerstones.
Messrs. Jones and Lewis met in the mid-’50s when the trumpeter was playing with Count Basie and the drummer was with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. They shared an interest in developing a contemporary large-ensemble sound at a time when jazz was increasingly made by smaller combos. Their band formed from jam sessions that took place largely among musicians who worked in television big bands at the time. Their first gig at the Vanguard was in February 1966, and the first disc of “All My Yesterdays” documents that performance in the legendary nightclub.
From the outset, it’s easy to hear the appeal of the band. “Back Bone,” the first track, starts with a solo by alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion that builds to an exciting peak that the ensemble maintains throughout both discs. The 18-piece outfit captures key elements of classic big bands, such as the relaxed swing of Basie’s ensembles and the regal harmonies of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Jones was a master arranger and conductor. On the disc, you can hear him shout encouragement to soloists and cue the other musicians. He wanted an electric atmosphere and got it. Jones moved to Copenhagen to work with European musicians in 1978, but by then the band’s style was set. The second disc of the set features the orchestra six weeks into what has become a half-century-long engagement, and it sounds completely at home with driving solos and music that incorporates the harmonies and structures of bebop without losing the elegant intensity of swing-era big bands.
Bassist Michael Formanek created his Ensemble Kolossus for a December 2014 recording session, and the lineup features some of the finest individual voices on the New York scene: saxophonists Tim Berne, Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega; trumpeters Ralph Alessi and Shane Endsley; cornetist Kirk Knuffke; pianist Kris Davis; guitarist Mary Halvorson; and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. His band is also 18 pieces and connects with the Jones/Lewis orchestra in its ability to expand on current trends and suggest a big-band language for a musical style that is often heard in solos and duos. The ensemble has a remarkably intimate and austere sound that gracefully increases to dramatic full-ensemble roars. The core of the recording is an eight-part suite of Mr. Formanek’s called “Exoskeleton.” Each segment features stellar solos from the band members, sometimes with section-based harmonies as a sonic backdrop and at other times full orchestral contrasts. The solos by Ms. Davis, Ms. Halvorson and Mr. Fujiwara highlight a sound that effectively alternates between spare and meaty.
My mind boggles at the thought of the musical heights Ensemble Kolossus could reach if it had a weekly engagement, but the absence of such opportunities reflects the changing nature of the New York music scene. There are fewer clubs in general and fewer opportunities for bands of any size. Thus, even if Mr. Formanek could secure a weekly booking he would probably struggle to keep a core band together between touring schedules and academic engagements. It’s unfortunate, as “The Distance” offers a new blueprint for postmillennial orchestral jazz.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.