25 Essential Big Band Albums (Plus Some Additional Picks)

While the heart and soul of jazz has always been improvisation, I’m a huge fan of the pre-arranged sounds of the big band, particularly the great bands that had amazing composers/arrangers combined with incredible improvisers.

Downbeat recently published an article detailing some of the best big band albums after polling a number of musicians about their favorite big band albums.  The top 25 albums aren’t very surprising to me, they have the usual suspects such as a lot of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thad Jones, Maria Schneider and Gil Evans.  Some of my favorite albums are left off, though, so here are a few of my additions to their list.

Count Basie, On The Road.  Recorded live in 1979, I believe, this album features a number of great arrangements and all the solos on this recording are outstanding.  I’m a particular fan of trombonist Booty Wood’s soloing on Booty’s Blues and Frank Foster’s arrangement of In A Mellow Tone, but bassist John Clayton’s solo on John the Third is also one of my favorites from this album.

Dizzy Gillespie, Live at Newport.  Another live big band album, this one recorded in 1957.  While the arrangements themselves aren’t especially innovative (although I love Ernie Wilkin’s tongue-in-cheek arrangement of Doodlin’ here), the soloing on this album are incredible all over.  Including Dizzy, memorable soloists on this album include trombonist Al Grey and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson.

Maynard Ferguson, Live at Jimmy’s.  Maynard always led a fantastic band and this particular one is my favorite.  This recording was done in 1974 and includes some of Maynard’s classic charts, including MacArthur Park, Fox Hunt, and Got the Spirit.  My favorite soloist on this album has to be New Zealander Bruce Jonstone on baritone saxophone, who plays all over this record.

Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Village Vanguard.  Mel Lewis is one of my all-time favorite big band drummers and this particular album features the compositions and arrangements of one of my favorite jazz composers, Bob Brookmeyer.  It’s hard to pick a favorite tune from this album, but Jim McNeely’s soloing on Ding, Dong, Ding is a definitely highlight.  Trumpet player and long-time collaborator of Brookmeyer Clark Terry sits in too.

Stan Kenton, New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm.  The only studio album from my five additions, this album has a couple of my favorite charts from Kenton’s band.  I’ve always enjoyed the clever writing on the opening track, Prologue (This Is an Orchestra) where Kenton introduces the entire band and the role they play in his orchestra.  And of course, as a trombonist, I have to favor two tunes that feature the great Frank Rosolino, Frankly Speaking and  23 Degrees North – 82 Degrees West (the coordinates of Cuba make the title for this Afro-Cuban groove chart).

It’s so hard to come up with a list like this and as I try to finish off with this post I’m thinking of even more great big band albums I’d like to mention by bands like the Woody Herman Thundering Herd, records by the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (particularly the ones that feature Jim McNeely’s writing), and more Thad Jones, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington albums not mentioned in the Downbeat article.  If you’ve got more you’d think deserve mention, leave them in the comments below.