– Really Big! – The Jimmy Heath Orchestra (Riverside). This 1960 date for a ten-piece ensemble mostly features arrangements by tenor player Jimmy Heath, with a couple more by trombonist Tom McIntosh. The arrangements are fine, though unspectacular. What I most enjoyed were the starry soloists convened for this session, including Nat and Cannonball Adderly, Clark Terry, Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, and the leader himself. Also notable is the presence of Heath’s brothers, Percy and Albert. This disc succeeds in achieving what the line notes quote Heath as seeking, “a big band sound with a small-band feeling.”
– Without a Song: Live in Europe 1969 – Freddie Hubbard (Blue Note). I had high expectations when looking at the personnel for this album: in addition to Hubbard on trumpet, the rhythm section includes Roland Hanna, Ron Carter, and Louis Hayes. But I found the album inconsistent. Sometimes Hubbard succeeds in creating meaningful lines, but on some tracks he falls into inane figuration that fails to “tell a story”, as the saying goes. The title track is an example of this, while “The Things We Did Last Summer” fares better. I was more consistently held by Hanna’s playing, including a high-wire unaccompanied bit on the title track.
– Highway Rider – Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch). I enjoyed the small group portions of this two-disc set of compositions and arrangements by the outstanding jazz pianist. There are fresh rhythmic ideas, crisp interplay, emotional range, vivid expressive characters, intriguing formal plans. Every member of the ensemble – Mehldau, Jeff Ballard or Matt Chamberlain, drums; Larry Grenadier, bass; and Joshua Redman, tenor; is a virtuoso both on their instrument, and as an improvisor.
However, the recorded sound often seems oddly boxed-in and dry on this album. Even more disturbing is the boxed-in orchestral writing. I was deeply annoyed by the leaden orchestral arrangements on several of the pieces. The pompous and unimaginative writing remains inert. The emotional temperature of the tracks that use the orchestra suggests that its presence is supposed to signal profundity, I suppose, but the effect is far from transcendent. The orchestral instruments fail to interact in a lively way with the members of the group. It feels like a lot of whole notes, and not much melodic or rhythmic flair. I must say that I am a bit baffled by the practical side of this – does Nonesuch really make so much money from a Mehldau CD that they can afford to put a substantial pick-up group of strings, horns, and double reeds at the disposal of a less than outstanding orchestral composer? I suppose Mehldau puts income from his live performances back into a project like this. Or was it a matter of grant writing and foundation support, as is the case with most composers in this country who are actually adept at writing for orchestra? More on Mehldau and the orchestra here.