Artist: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
Label: Resonance Records
Formats: 2-CD set, MP3, Streaming
Release date: February 19, 2016
Did you ever wonder where the musicians in the bands that appeared on various television variety shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s—such as the Mike Douglas Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, the Tonight Show, and the Dick Cavett Show—went after work? Well, an important part of this answer is disclosed in this two-disc CD set from Resonance Records. The musicians gathered at the Village Vanguard—sometimes in the audience, but more often as members of perhaps the most distinctive jazz big band of the past fifty years. Some reviewers referred to this group as simply THE Jazz Orchestra, capitalizing THE for emphasis. But let’s first set the early foundation for this wonderful collaboration.
The recording careers of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis intersected many times and spanned similar decades. Jones made his mark with Count Basie and his appearances on recordings stretch from the ‘50s until his death in 1986. Lewis, who began with Ray Anthony and continued with Stan Kenton, was active as a session drummer throughout his career. Lewis’ first recording dates from 1949 (with Anthony), and he was a regular in clubs and studio sessions led by many well-known musicians and vocalists alike through the ‘80s. The first time that Jones and Lewis recorded together was in a studio in Chicago booked by Argo Records for a session led by James Moody, released as “Great Day.” It preceded the sessions on this CD set by three years.
Unlike other Resonance releases, over half of the tunes on All My Yesterdays previously appeared on a CD released by Alan Grant in collaboration with BMG Records. The notes to this Resonance release state that Grant’s earlier release was unauthorized, despite the fact that Grant, a noted jazz deejay, directly facilitated the organization of the band and its appearance at the Village Vanguard. Grant’s release also included his brief interview with Mel Lewis that was broadcast a week prior to the opening performance at the Village Vanguard. While this interview is excluded from All My Yesterdays, the Resonance set importantly adds five previously unreleased performances. By including a thick booklet containing many interviews with the musicians, Resonance makes this a truly definitive and wonderful production, taking a place alongside an earlier compilation by Mosaic Records of the majority of commercially released recordings by THE orchestra.
The style of the performances on All My Yesterdays is inclusive, ranging from elements that sound like traditional swing arrangements (hear Hank Jones’ Basie-tinged piano introduction to “Ah, That’s Freedom” on the second CD) to almost free form (such as the alto solo on “The Little Pixie”). Across this range, the band integrated soloists inside original arrangements, producing landmark recordings that demonstrate much of the history of jazz from the ‘30s through the ’70s. Jones was truly the creative leader providing the charts, but Lewis contributed the rhythmic unity and momentum that anchored each performance, seemingly both relaxed and propulsive at the same time.
The first CD opens with a thundering performance of Thad Jones’ original composition, “Back Bone.” Voices of band members and other musicians in the audience are heard throughout, shouting words of encouragement. The house was full and passions were high, while the level of creativity in the performances disappointed no one. Section work was tight, and soloists were inspired. The second CD’s highlight is a wonderful performance of “Lover Man;” however, the unique passion of band and audience on the first CD provides many high spots. We are truly fortunate that this special debut was captured so well on this recording. And by the way, the sound quality on these new CDs is absolutely beyond reproach. Resonance provides a wonderful release that you will enjoy, especially if you appreciate the evolution of big bands in the history of jazz music.
The official recorded history of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra began one month after these live Village Vanguard recordings. They appeared on LPs released on Solid State Records (a label owned by United Artists Records), which were later compiled and reissued with additional selections by Mosaic, including THE Orchestra backing vocalist Joe Williams. Another live recording one year later also captured a performance at the Village Vanguard. The final released recording of the band dates from 1985 on Atlantic, and it was the last time Jones and Lewis were recorded together in this reconstituted gathering. The only television program featuring the band I know of was on Jazz Casual, issued on DVD and streamed on YouTube. It is worth your time to watch it.
As a personal note, when in New York during 1971 to conduct interviews for part of my own doctoral research, I was fortunate to have a Monday evening free. Having heard of THE Orchestra, I hopped on the subway and reached the Village Vanguard in time to be seated before the opening set. Live, the performances were every bit as exciting as those captured on these wonderful CDs. Listen and I bet you will agree.
Track listings for each CD and session personnel follow:
Disc 1: February 7, 1966
Back Bone—All My Yesterdays—Big Dipper—Mornin’ Reverend—The Little Pixie—Big Dipper (alternate take). Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Snooky Young, Jimmy Owens, Bill Berry (tp); Garnett Brown, Jack Rains (tb); Bob Brookmeyer (v-tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as,cl,fl); Joe Farrell (ts,cl,fl); Eddie Daniels (ts,cl); Marv “Doc” Hollady (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g, perc); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).
Disc 2: March 21, 1966
Low Down—Lover Man—Ah, That’s Freedom—Don’t Ever Leave Me—Willow Weep for Me—Mean What You Say—Once Around—Polka Dots & Moonbeams—Mornin’ Reverend—All My Yesterdays—Back Bone.
Personnel: Thad Jones (tp, flhrn, arr.,cond.); Jimmy Nottingham, Bill Berry, Jimmy Owens, Danny Stiles (tp); Jack Rains, Garnett Brown, Tom McIntosh (tb); Cliff Heather (b-tb); Jerome Richardson, Jerry Dodgion (as, cl, fl); Joe Farrell (ts, cl, fl); Eddie Daniels (ts, cl); Pepper Adams (bar); Hank Jones (p); Sam Herman (g); Richard Davis (b); Mel Lewis (d).
Reviewed by Thomas P. Hustad