Those who love big-band jazz should go down on their knees and thank Art Lillard and his kind. The New York based drummer/arranger/bandleader has been leading the 12 or 13 piece Heavenly Big Band
since 1987, and I can guarantee that he does not do it for the money. The evening I caught the band in New York some months ago it was playing to an empty room, and it has taken Lillard six years to put out this recording which was originally laid down in January of 2000. Apart from many hours spent mixing the sound, it also took a long time before he found a record label -- Summit Records -- who would put it out. I guess the major companies are too busy with gansta' rap and commercial pap, or with Wynton's jazz museum!
A museum piece is one thing this is not. It's red-blooded American jazz and swing music that engages the intellect while it gets the toes tapping, one of the unique capabilities of this genre. "One of the things that people forget is (that) jazz used to be music to dance to," legendary record producer Joel Dorn told me recently. "And it used to be music you went out to, to have fun. It's not all serious and complex and abstract." Well, the Heavenly Band manages to balance both these elements. The arrangements, mostly by Lillard plus one or two by guitarist Mark McCarron, have an exuberance about them, and a unique blend of colors that has been rather aptly described as "a dash of Bacharach, a measure of Mancini, half a jigger of "Birth of the Cool," and an ounce of Tadd Dameron, serve(d) with a twist of modern gospel." There is some straight-out swing, "Swingin' The Blues Away," a strong Latin component aided by the great Arturo O'Farrell and the late Mauricio Smith, as in "Incognito," a strong blues component, "Biznes Changes" and several pieces built around the work of the band's four vocalists and featuring the lyrics of flutist Jan Leder. The overall sound of the band has a brightness resulting from the somewhat unusual instrumentation, with two flutes in addition to the saxophone section with soprano and no baritone. (I hope Lillard's scores make it into the library of some university jazz programs where flutists who do not double on saxophone, as well as soprano saxophone specialists, have a hard time fitting in.)
Along with the writing, the band boasts several fine soloists who inject the bop and post-bop, and Latin, elements into the mix. Mauricio Smith was a legend on the New York Latin jazz scene, while Arturo O'Farrill still leads the Lincoln Center Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra
. Mike Longo was a long-time associate of Dizzy Gillespie, altoist Bob Mover has worked with Charles Mingus and Chet Baker, while David Peterson, Michael Boschen, Erik Jekabson, Jay Collins and Kyle Whelan are top-flight performers drawn from New York's seemingly inexhaustible talent pool.
These are all original compositions so Lillard and his compadres are adding invaluable material to the mother lode of American music, a new layer to add to the Great American Songbook. Let's pray that, a generation from now, there are still musicians interested in interpreting it, and listeners willing to enjoy it.