So far 2016 has seen a whole heap of great historical/reissued jazz albums. In addition to the brand new Peter Erskine Trio box set on ECM, previously unreleased live recordings from Larry Young and Sarah Vaughan and an unreleased studio date from Bill Evans (all three of those on Resonance Records), and the continued reissue of the Xanadu catalog, several releases have stood out this far. First up for discussion….
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at the Village Vanguard (Resonance Records HCD-2023)
Thank goodness for George Klabin and his 2-track tape machine and mixing board. On February 7, 1966 the Columbia University sophomore got a call to come down to the Village Vanguard to record the debut performance of what would become one of jazz’s most influential and important big bands: the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Unofficially available until now, Klabin’s recordings from that February evening along with those from the group’s performance at the Vanguard the following month have been released on Resonance Records in a deluxe two-disc set entitled All My Yesterdays.
While both discs are excellent what makes this release really pop is the dynamic that Klabin was able to capture on the band’s first night (the sound quality is quite exceptional considering he only had 6 mics and a pretty simple setup). The excitement and anticipation of debuting a new band is audible from the first disc’s opening downbeat. Listening to the first disc is akin to feeling the zap in the air and the hair on your arm rise in the middle of a violent lightning storm. The energy coming from the Jones/Lewis orchestra is immense. Just listen to the performance of Jones’ classic “The Little Pixie”: one hears laughter, someone shouting an encouraging “yeah, son!” behind Hank Jones’ piano solo, and oh yeah . . . an absolutely cooking band. There’s also a looseness and sense of camaraderie – the alt take of “Big Dipper” features a plunger trumpet intro (Snooky Young, perhaps?) that cracks up the band and the audience. “Back Bone” opens the album – and it’s a fitting title, as everything that makes the band great, i.e., contributes to its back bone, is here in spades. A tight band loaded with all-star talent, fantastic soloists (in this case Jerry Dodgion, Richard Davis, Hank Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Garnett Brown, and Mel Lewis), and Thad Jones’ swinging, fiery, and hip charts that extend the Basie school.
The second disc, with twice as many cuts as disc 1, features arrangements of standards, including “Lover Man,” “Willow Weep For Me,” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” These March recordings aren’t quite as scintillating as the first disc (one can only debut a band once, so that extra bit of snap is missing). The disc’s best points come in Jones’s original charts that have plenty of room for the soloists to stretch out. “Once Around” is the album’s highlight, which features a lengthy bari solo from Pepper Adams who marauds through the piece, demonstrating his impeccable time in places where the rhythm section lays out. And when the band comes back in at the end of each solo: the power of a train and the nimbleness of a formula one car.
All My Yesterdays is a key document in not just the history of the Jones/Lewis Orchestra, but in the development of contemporary big band writing as well. It’s not often one gets to hear the origin of such an important group. And it’s not just the music that make this a significant release: the music is accompanied by an 88 page booklet that’s full of photographs, interviews with band members, and essays from those involved in the release. Add this one to the canon of important and essential albums recorded at the Village Vanguard. Snatch this up without reservation.