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'All My Yesterdays' Captures The Beginning Of A 50-Year Engagement
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'All My Yesterdays' Captures The Beginning Of A 50-Year Engagement

Music Reviews

'All My Yesterdays' Captures The Beginning Of A 50-Year Engagement

'All My Yesterdays' Captures The Beginning Of A 50-Year Engagement
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Music from Thad Jones and Mel Lewis' first and seventh Mondays at the Village Vanguard is out on a new two-CD set. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says All My Yesterdays explodes with creative energy.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In February 1966, New York's Village Vanguard booked the new Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band to play two Monday nights. That engagement got extended to a month and then some. The orchestra they founded is still playing Mondays at the Vanguard 50 years later. A new live set includes some music from their opening night. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says they got it right the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "BIG DIPPER")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Thad Jones spent years playing trumpet with Count Basie and writing tunes and arrangements for his band. Some of his charts were a little weird for Basie and Jones filed them away with some other unheard music. Then he and drummer Mel Lewis started a rehearsal band with top musicians they knew mostly from New York's TV studios. They rehearsed Jones' music two or three months and then went into the Vanguard. The first Monday in February, 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "BIG DIPPER")

WHITEHEAD: The place was packed. The crowd was friendly, and the band was drilled and ready. They had a quiver of good tunes, like Thad Jones' "Mornin' Reverend." It's very '60s Ellington, with a signature beat and silky saxophones under wah-wah brass.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "MORNIN' REVEREND")

WHITEHEAD: That's like Ellington with a little more church in it, edging toward Charles Mingus territory. The Mingus influence was oddly pronounced on opening night in the crosstalking horns and controlled chaos. Thad Jones would conduct the band out front, shaping details and phrasing with hand signals. Conducting improvisers is one of those eternally newfangled ideas band leaders have been using forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "BACK BONE")

WHITEHEAD: Music from Thad Jones and Mel Lewis's first and seventh Mondays at the Village Vanguard is out on a two-CD set "All My Yesterdays," which includes a fat book of interviews with early and later band members. As one points out, even when the harmony gets weird, if it's swinging, people will dig it. Yeah, and it's always swinging. The band's original rhythm section had Thad's brother Hank Jones on piano, Richard Davis when that bass player could do no wrong and spark plug Mel Lewis behind the drums, accenting the solos, backing up riffs and shooing everybody along.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "THE LITTLE PIXIE")

WHITEHEAD: Jerome Richardson on alto sax on "Little Pixie." When the band gets recorded again six Mondays later, the ensemble blend is smoother and the solos more calm. I miss the crazy energy of opening night. On the plus side, by mid-March, band mainstay Pepper Adams had come in on baritone saxophone. His composition-minded solo on "Once Around" extends the written material that sets it up. And when pianist Hank Jones hears where he's going, he sneaks up behind Adams on little mouse feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "ONCE AROUND")

WHITEHEAD: After a dozen Mondays at the Vanguard, the orchestra went into the studio for the first time. And by then, the music had been polished to a high gloss. The ensemble playing was beautiful. The band now known as the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra has had some raucous nights since the early days, but that very first gig was the big band's big bang, an explosion of the creative energy it still feeds on long after the founders passed on. This orchestra has been going strong for 50 years now. That's big. I can't quite get my head around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF THAD LEWIS/MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA SONG, "BACK BONE")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "All My Yesterdays," the debut 1966 recordings at the Village Vanguard by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

On the next FRESH AIR, the sad story of Atlantic City, N.J. The once elegant resort town turned to gambling to revive its economy in the '70s. Casinos made a fortune, but the prosperity left most residents behind. Now gamblers have other places to go and the city is weeks away from going broke. We'll speak with historian Bryant Simon and journalist Amy Rosenberg. Hope you can join us.

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