The big band has been on the verge of being an archaic assembly of instruments, one whose size was necessary in the pre-amplified dance hall days of swing, but quickly became unwieldy and unprofitable. But in the last few years, the formation has been making a come back. Perhaps the best known large ensembles that explore new means of expression are those led by Maria Schneider, John Hollenbeck, and Darcy James Argue. Recently, however, in New York alone, large ensembles have begun to pop up all over thanks to musicians such as pianist Jason Lindner, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, trombonist Josh Roseman, bassist Pedro Giraudo (whose 2009 performance at the Jazz Gallery I reviewed here), and saxophonist Travis Sullivan, who leads the Björkestra.
Although all of these groups are removed from the big bands of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson by generations of stylistic development, they have one thing in common: each attempts to use the big band orchestration in such a way that increases harmonic eloquence. With so many instruments involved, it’s hard to turn down the opportunity to seek lush harmonies and textures.
Andrew D’Angelo has a different idea, although his project ends up having more to do with certain big band traditions than other groups do. Instead of fleshing out his pieces, such as “Gay Disco,” which D’Angelo frequently performs with his trio of the same name, the alto saxophonist and showy band leader rejects the idea that with more horns comes an obligation to strike orchestral tones. D’Angelo needs the extra horns only to get louder, heavier, and even more abrasive.
Many of the pieces the Andrew D’Angelo Big Band performed at the basement theater of 45 Bleeker were heavy on unison lines. There was no remarkable counterpoint or adventurous concept. Melodies were brash and loud. During solos by other band members on such tunes as “Big Butt,” and “Gay Disco,” D’Angelo would play short melodic fragments meant to be repeated by a section of the band with growing intensity. This practice is known as riffing, and it was one of the defining characteristics of Count Basie’s Big Band, and other blues-based jazz orchestras in the 1930s.
When D’Angelo soloed, either on the alto saxophone or on the bass clarinet, he rocked, convulsed, and at times ran from side to side, swinging his foot onto the topography of the stage and blasting towards the band. His touching ballad, "I Love You," was sentimental and unguarded, and in that way it was reminiscent of Johnny Hodges. In between songs he engaged in barbed, humorous exchanges with the audience and band members. His persona commanded as much attention as his playing. He was doing something that has been rare for band leaders in jazz since the days of Louis Armstrong: he was putting on a show.