The Jazz.com Blog
May 13, 2009 · 5 comments
More than twenty years have elapsed since New York audiences have been able to hear the repertoire of the great Claude Thornhill band in live performance. When a centennial concert was held a few days ago, critic Will Friedwald juggled his calendar to make sure he was on hand. T.G.
Star date: May 8, 2009. For the previous six months, I knew exactly what I would be doing on this particular night. That day marked the opening of the new Star Trek movie, and there was no way I could miss that. Then, at the last minute, when I was about to buy a pair of tickets at Fandango.com, I learned that there was, in fact, something even more important than Kirk and Spock and Bones McCoy. It turns out that very same Friday evening, the trumpeter and educator Kevin Blanq was mounting an ambitious concert in tribute the legendary Claude Thornhill Orchestra.
Perhaps even more than Star Trek, Claude Thornhill and his amazing staff of orchestrators (most importantly Gil Evans) and soloists saw the future and boldly went where no musicians had gone before. The band, which made its mark throughout the high years of the swing era and the early postwar period, cast an enormous influence on the shape of the jazz to come. Its most prominent progeny was the ground-breaking Miles Davis Nonet of 1949-1950. Yet when the Nonet’s recordings were issued on a famous album called The Birth of the Cool, most of the musicians involved—notably longtime Thornhill-ites Gil Evans, Lee Konitz, and Gerry Mulligan—were aware that they were merely developed ideas that Thornhill and Evans had already given birth to.
The Thornhill band was cool long before the term was used in jazz, at least in the modern sense: from the beginning, the pianist-leader was much more interested in contemporary classical music, than, say Goodman or Miller. This gave the band a cool sonority, enhanced by the use of orchestral colors rarely heard in swing bands, such as French horns, bass trombone, arco bass, and tuba, and unusual combinations, like a six-piece reed section of four standard tenor clarinets plus two bass clarinets. The interest in contemporary European music spilled over into a sympathy for the emerging modern jazz of the period, and Thornhill commissioined arrangements by his Evans of seminal bop works by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis—all, ostensibly, for dancers.
The band was prized by musicians—it had the rare and then somewhat useless honor of an endorsement from the even-less-known Thelonious Monk—and music buffs. But, unlike Glenn Miller, who was one of Thornhill’s sponsors and mentors, Thornhill never caught on in a big way with the general public. Thornhill’s reputation could still use some bolstering: there hasn’t been a full-length concert of his music in New York at least since Gary Giddins and the American Jazz Orchestra saluted him in 1988. That was why I had to miss the opening of Star Trek—by that reckoning, there won’t be another Thornhill event until 2030—and quite possibly the Klingons will have phasered our planet into oblivion by then.
Mr. Blanq, for his part mounted an excellent recreation—it was authentic to the point where the director almost never talked between numbers—rather the tunes were mostly linked with piano interludes, just as Thornhill himself did back in the day—and made the indirect point that this is where Miles and Gil got the idea for connecting the individual songs together the same in Miles Ahead, as well as the way that Miles performed his sets in one long conjoined, uninterrupted number throughout his electronic period.
Mr. Blanq somehow managed to put together a full 18-piece band, including two French horns, plus an additional three flautists who joined in on certain arrangements. The other guest was vocalist Molly Ryan, who totally nailed the essence of a ‘40s band canary on “Sunday Kind of Love.” (This was the closest thing Thornhill had to a hit. The song was originally published by Thornhill’s one-time employer, Louis Prima, who once famously introduced the pianist on a record as “Baboon-Face Thornhill.”) Many of the members in Mr. Blanq’s orchestra were student players and recent graduates from Mr. Blanq’s tutelage at LaGuardia High School—most of whom probably weren’t around at the time of the AJO concert 21 years ago. He also brought in three ringers: sax doubler Mark Lopeman (who works regularly with revivalists Vince Giordano and David Berger), classical clarinetist Paul Garment (son of jazz advocate and macher Leonard Garment), and pianist Jim McNeely of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
Today we mostly remember the Thornhill band for its prescient embrace of modernism, but at the time, most of those who danced to the band in ballrooms across the country mainly knew it as a piano-driven ensemble in which most of the melodies were carried by Thornhill himself. There was a tradition of cocktail piano big bands throughout the swing era—famously Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavallero—and Thornhill, to a certain extent, appealed to the same audience, albeit in a considerably hipper and more musical fashion. Mr. Blanq should be commended for including a lot of the band’s bread-and-butter numbers, which transformed pop tunes and standards, such as “Lover Man” and “This Time” into elegant keyboard concerti. Both Mr. McNeely and pianist Alex Smith expertly recaptured Thornhill’s touch, which to today’s ears sounds like a mixture of Count Basie, Frederick Chopin, and even Floyd Cramer’s Nashville “slipnote” style piano.
In addition, Mr. Blanq called a few classical adaptations, such as Gil Evans’s ball-busting arrangements of “La Paloma” and Tchaikovsky’s “Arab Dance” (the two were originally issued back-to-back on a 12” Columbia 78 RPM single). And there also were the boppers: “Yardbird Suite” (then still known as “What Price Love”), “Anthropology,” and Illinois Jacquet’s “Robin’s Nest.” He threw in a raft of rarities, including a remarkable, unrecorded Evans chart of “Moon Dreams,” which utilized a flute section and overall has more in common with the original Glenn Miller AAF chart than Evans’s later free-style interpretation for the Davis tuba band. In a couple of cases, Blanq wrote in a trumpet solo for himself in the vocal spot, in place of the original boy crooner, as on “I Knew You When,” although on the jivey (and “drive-y”) “Sunday Drivin’” he essayed the rhythm vocal himself.
Surprisingly, Mr. Blanq omitted Thornhill’s theme song and most famous composition, “Snowfall,” and in general concentrated on the slower pieces, playing them with appropriate subtlety and the attention to nuance and shading that they need. Still, I wouldn’t have minded a few of the band’s hard-hitting and faster flag-wavers, like “Buster’s Last Stand” and the almost frighteningly avant-garde “Portrait of a Guinea Farm.”
In one of the few announcements that Mr. Blanq did make, he told us that he hopes to keep the project going, to give other performances, even beyond the centennial year. Hearing the music live caused all of us present, including Evans protégée Maria Schneider and bopster singer-songwriter Bobby Dorough, to re-think a lot of our positions on the band. For instance, the Thornhill band is too-often briefly mentioned in biographies of Gil Evans as but a mere incubation for the arranger (although he was already in his ‘30s at that time and no novice). After this concert, it seems equally valid to feel that the Thornhill period was the high point of Evans’s career, and what he later achieved with Miles Davis and his own band was a mere afterthought.
The concert was actually held not in the big room at Symphony Space, but in the more intimate Thalia Theatre, where it was possible to hear every remarkable detail that Mr. Blanq, Mr. McNeely, and company brought out in the music. Yet, as I remembered on the way out, this venue was recently re-named in honor of a famous Hollywood actor-director-arts patron who sponsored its restoration: It is now known officially as the Leonard Nimoy Thalia. Thus I can only assume that Mr. Spock himself probably won’t mind if I wait until the second day to go see the new Star Trek.
This blog entry posted by Will Friedwald