Big bands are so rare in America these days. They used to be the standard, and not just for swing music but for Kansas City R&B and Panhandle Western swing, for Midwestern oompah and rollicking klezmer in the Catskills, Mexican bands with huge hats and fat guitars and crazy tunings, even early rock & roll. Plus those incredible Cuban and Puerto Rican orquestas packing the Palladium. The best — think Basie and Ellington, but there were plenty more — made music you can hear today in all kinds of combo variations. The big-band sound has been bebopped and hard-bopped and Kentonized and Latinized and even out there–ized. And thanks to Miles, today’s arrangers use ideas that were unknown in the ’30s or ’40s, or even the ’50s. Musicians too have changed, dealing with Miles and Bird and Trane, with Dizzy, with Monk. Even audiences have changed … they listen a lot more now and dance almost never … even to the Latin-jazz bands. And those audiences have gotten a lot older (maybe less so among the Latin crowd). But a good big band is still a good big band, still swings like mad. When bands light into the Basie- or Ellington- or Dizzy- or Mingus-flavored material, they absolutely soar.
Which makes A Swingin’ Affair, the L.A. Jazz Institute’s titanic big-band-a-palooza this weekend at the Four Points Sheraton by LAX, such a blast. The damn thing started Thursday (atomizing Basie with John Altman and the Juggernaut) and runs through Sunday. There are dozens of bands. Highlights Friday include the ever-popular Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band, the terrific Maiden Voyage, the Chris Walden Big Band and Roger Neumann’s Rather Large Band. Saturday includes the amazing trumpeter Carl Saunders’ Be Bop Big Band, legendary vibist Emil Richards’ Hollywood All-Star Big Band, trombonist Bill Watrous’ band, Med Flory’s incredibly hot Jazz Wave, bopping at breakneck Supersax tempos, and the Bud Shank Tribute Orchestra, featuring just about everybody (and that one is a freebie). Sunday highlights are Jack Sheldon’s arranger Tom Kubis, the great Bob Florence Limited Edition and the Alf Clausen Jazz Orchestra (yes, the Simpsons guy). Prices vary. Go to lajazzinstitute.org or call (562) 985-7065 for details. But if you must dance to your horn sections, the Salsa Congress happens all weekend right around the corner at the Four Points Radisson. And if that ain’t sexy enough, there’s the ultratight, ultrahot salsoul of Cecelia Noel and the Wild Clams out at — get this — the Topanga Valley Days on Saturday. Watch those hippies dance.
Now for some smaller outfits. Brooklyn tenor Jerome Sabbagh is at Vibrato on Saturday; we’re spinning his new One, Two, Three like mad (now, in fact). Always-inventive Billy Childs has his Jazz Chamber Ensemble at the Jazz Bakery through Sunday. Superbassist Charnett Moffett’s trio is at Catalina on Tuesday and his new Art of Improvisation ain’t just another bass-chops CD … this thing absolutely rocks. You have to hear his Hendrixesque take on the national anthem. The Jazz Bakery hosts bassist Scott Colley’s monster quartet (including trumpeter Ralph Alessi and drummer Brian Blade) on Wednesday and Thursday. And also want to mention The Derrick Finch Tribute Quintet (trumpeter Emile Martinez with saxist Mike Brooks, guitarist Mike McTaggart, bassist Alex King and drummer Jonathan Pinson) at RedWhite&Bluezz in Pasadena on Wednesday. Finch, the self-proclaimed best dressed man in any room (and he was, too) was a beautifully hard-swinging pianist; he’s gone now, just like that, and too soon ain’t the word for it. His longtime drummer, Michael Barsimanto, helped throw this gig, a fundraiser for the Derrick Finch Scholarship Fund. Finch mentored these players, and they’re heading off for Berklee. The bread raised here will help. That’s a sweet legacy.
Finally, the awesome, Michigan-based neo-afrobeat band NOMO are at Spaceland in Silver Lake (see rock listings) on Saturday. Their latest, Invisible Cities (Ubiquity) is as brilliant as 2008’s Ghost Rock, a big sax-flute-trumpet sound over throbbing bass and drums. The horns are tight, the solos intense — especially that crazy baritone like Pepper Adams; they drop in layers of found-object percussion and tin-horn electronics, and it’s like something out of the NYC-loft jazz scene you can dance all night to, high or not. It’s so groovy you cannot believe it, and, baby, here's the best part … deep down, it's jazz.
(Brick can be reached at email@example.com.)