If swinging progressive big band jazz is your bag, then this pairing of late 1960s albums, one live at the prestigious Village Vanguard, and the other in the studio, could hardly be bettered. Factor in some of the finest jazz musicians of the era, from trumpeter Richard Williams to saxophonists Jerry Dodgion and Jerome Richardson among a cast of others, and not forgetting a stellar rhythm section of Roland Hanna on piano and Richard Davis on bass, then you simply have one of the greatest big band formations of the era, reflecting changes in music at the time with those funkier drum licks. The first and harder to find of the two albums, was recorded at the Village Vanguard in October 1968 and the sound quality is excellent, The opener is the uptempo, ‘Mornin’ Reverend’, which is notable for its fine brass ensemble orchestrations and tenor saxophone solo. Similarly, fine ensemble work is a hallmark of the more cinematic sounding, ‘Kids Are Pretty People’, which features a trumpet solo. Best of all is the lovely medium tempo, ‘The Waltz You ‘Swang’ For Me’, with clarinets prominent here including that of Eddie Daniels, while Richardson alternates on soprano saxophone this time round. More intimate in nature is the distinctly Evanseque ‘Say It Softly’, with what sounds like Thad Jones soloing on flugelhorn. Completing a fine live recording is, ‘The second race’, which is more akin to a small group setting and one that allows pianist Hanna to shine, with fine bass accompaniment from Davis and a muted Harmon solo.
The second, and more famous of the two recordings, has regularly been reissued on vinyl and CD, but makes a fine combination here. A virtually identical line-up on this June 1969 New York studio recording has two added guitarists including Barry Galbraith, on saxophones Scotland’s very own Joe Temperley and then in-demand Joe Farrell, while Snooky Young takes over from Richard Williams on trumpet duties. A strong dose of the blues is in evidence on the title track, with Roland Hanna at the helm on a relaxed mid-tempo number. One of the most compelling pieces is the orchestra’s take on Cannonball Adderley’s ‘Jive Samba’, and here the drum beat intro leads into a slow build up with a piano vamp and that oh so familiar catchy brass ensemble riff working effectively in tandem. Soul-jazz hues are evident also in the Thad Jones original, ‘Big Dipper’, and a memorable brass motif. One reason why this album is perennially popular is that it closely resembles how the Jones-Lewis sound was at their peak and in, ‘Groove Merchant’, the classy big band orchestrations coupled with the piano musings of Hanna are definitive examples of the joint leaders craft. Melodic and mid-tempo in equal measure.
Further illustrating how and why the music was made, the extensive twenty-four page accompanying booklet leave no stone unturned, with original vinyl back cover notes on both recordings, and with an up-to-date overview of proceedings from Mojo/Record Collector reviewer, Charles Waring. Accessible, yet challenging music in the same breath, this is Thad Jones and Mel Lewis at their finest.