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The big bands are back (for a couple of minutes, anyway)

American HustleThe first sound you hear on the soundtrack of David O Russell’s new film American Hustle is that of the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing “Jeep’s Blues” during their historic appearances at the Newport Festival in 1956, and it just about lifted me out of my seat. There’s something about the sound of six brass, five reeds and three rhythm — in this particular case — that no amount of technology can reproduce or match.

I suppose whole generations have grown up without experiencing that sensation. I was lucky enough to see Ellington, Basie and Lionel Hampton leading their full-scale outfits, and a few others besides. The species still exists, if you search for it (I’m no great fan of Jools Holland, but he should certainly be commended for doing his bit in that respect), allowing people to discover what happens when all those instruments start disturbing the air in a room — preferably that of a smallish club.

The Jimmy Heath Big Band is an occasional ensemble led by a tenor saxophonist and composer who would have replaced John Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1959 had he not been on parole at the time and not allowed to leave his native Philadelphia, thus preventing him from going on the road with one of the three or four leading small groups of the day. His consolation prize came when Miles recorded his composition “Gingerbread Boy” on the Miles Smiles album a few years later. He is the brother of the late Percy Heath, the bassist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, and the drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath: probably Philadelphia’s greatest musical family.

Heath is now 87; he was a mere 85 when his band recorded their new album, Togetherness, at the Blue Note club in New York City for the JLP label. It features several Heath originals, plus his arrangements of the standard “Lover Man”, Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Fiesta Mojo” and Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite”, the presence of which reminds us that in his youth, when he was playing alto, Heath was known in Philly as “Little Bird”.

This is music that never attempts to escape the conventions of the type of straightforward modern jazz which emerged from the bebop revolution. Heath arranges as he plays, with a complete understanding and command of that idiom, translating his knowledge to the broader canvas. The sections do exactly what they are supposed to do: they swing, they shout, they purr, and occasionally they whisper. Heath’s “A Sound for Sore Ears” is a terrific opener, and his tender improvisation on “Lover Man” is the highlight of the whole set for me. The other soloists include the trumpeter Roy Hargrove and the altoist Antonio Hart. The double bassist is Peter Washington and the drummer is Lewis Nash, which means that the rhythm section moves on well oiled bearings. This not an album to start a musical revolution, but it’s a reminder of how well the format can still work.

“Jeep’s Blues”, incidentally, is just the first of many pieces of music featured throughout American Hustle — which, as you might already know, is set in the 1970s, that decade beloved of a generation of film directors too young to have experienced it at first hand. Nothing else on the soundtrack — with the possible exception of Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” — lives up to that great start. But it’s still a very clever and entertaining film.

* The still from American Hustle shows Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard

    Thanks for this.

    A tremendous Jimmy Heath record recently remastered/re released: The ‘tentet’ “Really Big”, will blow the windows out. “Triple Threat”, “The Quota” and “The Thumper” are also v good.

    January 8, 2014
  2. nikluac #

    Yes, electrifying Ellington opening. Had me wondering when a film last featured ‘classic’ big band jazz. A treat, even if the rest of the soundtrack doesn’t quite live up to it.

    January 18, 2014

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