With the relative dearth of big bands in jazz today, it’s difficult to find a unit that plays together on an on-going basis as in the days of the early and middle decades of the 20th century. Most exceptions fall into the category of repertory ensembles under the names of famous but deceased giants. One of a handful of anomalies is the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which plays weekly at the Village Vanguard and tours internationally. Though one of their missions is to extend the legacy of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis bands, the VJO goes far beyond rehashes of Jones/Lewis charts.
The VJO certainly does continue the Jones/Lewis commitment to swinging, and the modern charts and blowing of the 2001 release "Can I Persuade You?" testify to this fact. Jimmy Giuffre’s "Dragon Fly" leads off the disc, with meaty solos from Rich Perry on tenor sax, Dennis Irwin on bass, Jim McNeely on piano, and Scott Wendholt on an angular trumpet statement. Bob Mintzer’s samba-tinged "Antigua" follows, and showcases the tightness of the ensemble and the imagination of McNeely once again. "A Simple Wish" contains some of the lush and pillow-like balladic voicings of the Jones/Lewis ballad charts, and allows Wendholt plenty of space to play with in his lovely solo.
Three more well-known tunes provide leaping-off points for arrangements and solos that are anything but standard. Wayne Shorter’s "ESP" finds Dick Oatts’ alto sax in fine form. Ellington’s "Sophisticated Lady" is given an unusually jaunty treatment by arranger Garnett Brown, who also contributes an original called "Bachafillen," a tune that is to my ears the centerpiece of the disc. Billy Drewes’ alto sax follows a sinewy ‘bone solo by Luis Bonilla in Brown’s swinger. The interplay between McNeely and Irwin on the intro to "Just Friends," which closes the disc, generates such a forward momentum that the pared down melody on the chart trots along on top as if on a conveyor belt of swing.