Ever since the demise of the swing era after World War II, big band music has struggled to keep pace with the music marketplace. Orchestras led by Duke Ellington and Count Basie rolled on with fame-winds long secured, while jazz shifted to tighter units of bebop and free jazz. The rocking pulse of 1950s rhythm-and-blues used fewer personnel. Ever wonder why Fats Domino songs sound so big, for six pieces in a studio with primitive technology?
Dave Bartholomew, the producer, once led a big band. He wanted the resonance; he got it. In recent years, Wynton Marsalis has featured orchestral concerts in the Jazz at Lincoln Center program with its devotion to the idea of a canon.
The sheer expense of putting large bands on stage is a real factor in a troubled economy. Moreover, the struggle for jazz artists in any-sized band to sell CDs is pressing. In 2009, rapper Lil Wayne (recently released from jail in New York on gun charges) sold 2.3 million CDs, more than all jazz discs combined. As the Internet spoon-feeds American youth a belief that culture, apart from $200 concert tickets and a Kindle, is rightfully free, locals have a rare chance to see the John Mahoney Big Band in action on Dec. 9 at Snug Harbor.
They will be playing songs from Christmas Joy, the album released last December, alas too late for the vital marketing endorsement these pages carry.
Mahoney – a trombonist, music professor and coordinator of Jazz Studies at Loyola University New Orleans – here ranges across familiar territory with fresh sparkle and graceful arrangements. The first cut, “Joy to the World,” anchors the traditional melody but with a swaying tailgate rhythm led by Mahoney as the song wanders out of the conventions you expect from a carol, meandering back and forth with sweet riffing to draw the smiles.
In each of these seven extra-lengthy songs, the melodic architecture stands apart from the redundant conventions by these songs as typically heard and played. If you tire of the canned carols sold like soup at stores or the dregs of commercial radio, Christmas Joy will renew your hope in good music and possibly world peace. That is because the big band orchestrations of these holiday classics carry well-textured warmth generated by the unhurried pacing.
Mahoney oversees a warm, sinuous flow by giving the songs the time to roll and build toward the improvised spaces for various instrumentalists, before curling back to thematic baselines.
If you wonder how “Silent Night” could display a unique sound, listen to Bobby Campo’s ethereal lead on flugelhorn, leading a melody up as if searching for clouds in a nocturnal sky.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” opens with a singers’ chorus meant to simulate a Benedictan chant, only to segue into the instrumental work that maintains the stately pace but with a pulsing trombone solo by Greg Hicks.
Mahoney’s son, David, is a stellar drummer on this recording, and the ubiquitous percussion master Michael Skinkus appears on two cuts.
The seamless quality of musicianship in the Mahoney Big Band makes it difficult to single out individuals. But Meghan Schwartz’s steady virtue on piano gives a rudder to this music, and on the last cut, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” the prominence of her work is lustrous.
The list of other artists on the recording runs to 16 individuals yet unmentioned. How good is a big band if they don’t get a shout-out? At the risk of compromising my word space, I will pass over the respective instruments to trumpet partial credit where more is due: Ray Moore, Lee Hicks, Tony Dagradi, Larry Panella, Paul Frechou, Jason Mingledorff, Brian Graber, Jimmy Weber, Dave Blask, Riccardo Emilien, Rick Trolsen, Jeff Albert, Jerry Verges, Charlie Halloran, Brian Prunka and Jesse Boyd.
I do not believe I have quoted from a press release in the 16 years I have produced this column; in fact I usually toss them without reading. One line from Mahoney’s struck me as dead on: “The band’s repertoire consists of well over 30 challenging compositions and arrangements by Mahoney that demand the highest improvising and reading skills of its members.”
The Christmas album can be ordered from MahoneyBigBand.com. The group is also slated to perform at the Jazz Educator Network Conference, on Thurs., Jan. 6, at 7:30 p.m., at The Roosevelt New Orleans.