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That '70s Swing: Big Bands And Bell Bottoms

Artwork from the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra's 1970 album Consummation. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ah, the 1970s — that now-you-malign-it, now-you-don't decade of seemingly endless cultural reaping and debate. Was it the best of times, the worst of times, or a little of both? From a jazz perspective, Ethan Iverson and others have done an excellent job of documenting the wealth of inspiring music that was recorded in these years, helping to deflate the notion that all was fusion and flares (not that there's anything wrong with that). Excellent hard bop and avant-garde albums were being made, fusion itself offered a cornucopia of colorful sounds, and an ongoing and open societal vitality seemed to inform the work of past masters and up-and-coming musicians alike.

But how often do people think or talk about big bands when it comes to the 1970s? Big bands, of course, had supposedly been dead or in decline since the end of the 1940s; hence the recurring "Will the big bands come back?" trope/hype of the 1950s and '60s. While it would be difficult to deny that large orchestras did indeed diminish as a commercial force throughout those years, it's also generally accepted that many fine records continued to emerge from swing-era mainstays such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Harry James.

Jump ahead to the end of the 1960s and the years that followed, though, and one could even argue that the big bands did indeed come back, at least in an aesthetically rewarding way; it's a period rife with interesting big-band records from the likes of Charles Mingus (Let My Children Hear Music), Duke Ellington (The New Orleans Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse), Gil Evans (Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix), the Clarke-Boland Big Band, Charles Tolliver, Sun Ra and many others. In the age of rock, big bands offered a suggestion that musical power could still emanate from non-electric sources. Here are five musical testaments to the not-dead-yet world of 1970s big-band music.

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Don Ellis

Trumpeter Don Ellis did more than introduce a wide array of unusual time signatures into large orchestral settings; he also kept alive the notion of experiment and adventure in big-band music, and anticipated the ever-growing incorporation of disparate elements into the sound of modern jazz. Tears of Joy is a tour de force that amply demonstrates the breadth of his vision, drawing upon strings, a brass octet, a multiple-percussion rhythm section, and various musical sources that make the title of this track (which contains an appropriately trippy interlude) an apt moniker for his sound in general. A critic once called Ellis "the Stan Kenton of the 1970s" (perhaps Kenton on weird psychedelics?), but there was nothing quite like the Ellis orchestra in any era.

The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra

The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra might well be the gold standard for 1970s big bands. Formed in 1966, it became a vehicle for the writing talents of Jones and Bob Brookmeyer, as well as a host of stellar players such as pianist Roland Hanna and trumpeter Snooky Young, and it continues to this day in the form of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. "Consummation" is the title track from the same album that yielded the modern-day holiday standard "A Child Is Born," and an excellent example of the gracefully nuanced and lovely charts that Jones produced for a big band that has now become an institution.

Hear "Consummation" at Rhapsody.

Woody Herman

We're not in "Early Autumn" anymore, Toto. Few old-school bandleaders worked harder throughout the 1970s than Woody Herman to keep their orchestras suffused with youthful energy and new charts that reflected the music of the times. (Among other things, he paid tribute to Steely Dan on the 1978 album Plays Chick, Donald, Walter and Woodrow.) Chick Corea's "Spain" ended up serving as a sort of high-mellow-energy flag-waver for the 1970s Herman Herd, and reveals a swing-age icon who retains his integrity and dignity in his attempts to continue making musical advances.

Maynard Ferguson

Maynard Ferguson plays trumpet, flugelhorn and his own so-called "Superbone" — which combined aspects of a slide and a valve trombone — during this hard-swinging musical chase, recorded several years before his smash hit with the theme from Rocky. The 1970s were a commercially successful and artistically uneven period for Ferguson, but he always maintained his love for a high-spirited jazz romp like this one.

Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band

One of the 1970s' most notable big bands was formed when pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and her husband, saxophonist and flutist Lew Tabackin, moved from New York to Los Angeles early in the decade. The band became an outlet for Akiyoshi's writing, which often employed creative use of woodwinds, tonal colors and rhythmic variety, as well as aspects of traditional Japanese music. "Road Time Shuffle," a jaunty shuffle-rhythm tune with characteristically unusual Akiyoshi touches, was written in honor of the orchestra's first tour of Japan, and features Dick Spencer on alto sax.

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