The Dutch Jazz Orchestra

The Lady Who Swings The Band: Rediscovered Music of Mary Lou Williams
Challenge CR 73251

A welcome change from institutional jazz bands turning out yet another over-familiar B.E.G.K. salute – honoring (Count) Basie, (Duke) Ellington, (Benny) Goodman and (Stan) Kenton – The Dutch Jazz Orchestra (DJO) offers high-class renditions of 13 compositions by pianist Mary Lou Williams.

A mixture of familiar classics and obscurities, the 19-piece band based in Hilversum, The Netherlands proves that Williams (1910-1981) was much more than jazz’s first widely acknowledged female instrumentalist. Sexist in its exclusivity, that half-hearted designation is properly superseded by another when hearing this CD. Without argument it proves that the pianist, who wrote for bands as different as Ellington’s, Goodman’s, Dizzy Gillespie’s and during her 12-year tenure as chief arranger with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy, was one of the best big band composer/arrangers without restrictions.

The Lady Who Swings The Band substantiates this with tunes written between 1936 and 1977, with her later compositions more cognizant of modern jazz advances, and often more interesting – if not more relentlessly swinging – than her Kirk work.

On “Medi II”, for instance guitarist Martijn van Iterson uses chromatic frailing as if he was Joe Pass extrapolating an extended guitar vamp on top of contrapuntal coloring from a Gerald Wilson-led band. Meanwhile “Shafi”, named for former Charles Mingus saxophonist Shafi Hadi, posits a middle section of bass drum flams and reverberating cymbal extensions from Erik Ineke followed by a dramatic silent pause to separate the vibrated, mellow alto saxophone solo of Albert Beltman and the feathery baritone work of Nils van Haften – if other big horn wielders herd their notes through the basement, he’s satisfied to stay on the first floor.

Still preference shouldn’t be confused with individuality, and as good as the band members are in a technical sense, together they appear to lack the sort of distinct musical personalities Williams would have been writing for in those earlier bands. Sure, the DJO’s powerhouse presentation makes sure the CD doesn’t sound like nostalgia night at the old age home, but some of Williams’ distinctiveness is lost once the solos begin. Beltman always seems to be channeling Johnny Hodges smoothness, for instance and pianist Rob van Bavel is frequently in a Basie mould.

What that means is the band takes on whatever coloration is needed for each track, making it a prime vehicle for interpretation, but without asserting exactly what distinguishes it from another large aggregation. That’s a charge that could never be leveled against the various groups of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, and, due to solipsism and excess, Kenton. Still the DJO has already recorded four CDs of new and familiar Billy Strayhorn material and Williams deserves the same treatment.

Putting aside originality for a moment, the group does a bang-up version of the pianist’s most famous composition, 1938’s “What's Your Story, Morning Glory”. Lyrical even lacking words, it’s the ne plus ultra in unforced swing built around semi-boogie-woogie playing from van Bavel and John Ruocco’s coloratura clarinet warbles. With all the rough edges smoothed off, it still works up to rocking call-and-response situation with the reeds carrying the melody and the brass waving derbies to create wah-wah resonance.

“Lonely Moments”, arranged in 1947, is a slinky, cinematic line that negotiates a rutted path between Swing and Bop. With van Iterson’s solo flight in the Charlie Christian school, Ruocco’s clarinet expressing the full Goodman and Ineke’s bass drum ruffs channeling Gene Krupa and “Sing, Sing, Sing”, it’s up to the penetrating Gillespie-like shrills from the five trumpets to bring boppish time sense to the ching-ching rhythm.

Elsewhere the swaggering arrangements encourage various soloists to don their best Lester Young or Ben Webster masks if they’re tenor saxophonists; emulate Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton if trumpeters; channel Benny Carter or Hodges as altoists; and almost become Vic Dickenson or Dickie Wells if they play trombone.

Replete with effortlessly swinging beats and intricate section vamps, the band almost redeems itself with top-of-the-line section work. Listen to The Lady Who Swings The Band for memorable ensembles, notable compositions and sharp arrangements. Just don’t expect to find inimitable solos.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Chief 2. Aries Mood (A Portrait of Ben Webster) 3. Medi II 4. Scorpio 5. O.W. 6. Scratchin’ In The Gravel 6. Shafi 7. What's Your Story, Morning Glory 9. New Musical Express 10. You Know Baby 11. Lonely Moments 12. Ghost of Love; Walkin’ and Swingin’

Personnel: Jan Oosthof, Ruud Breuls, Erik Veldkamp, Peter van Soest and Mike Booth (trumpet); Hansjörg Fink, Andy Bruce, David Rothschild, Martin van den Berg (trombones); Hans Meijdam (alto saxophone) ; Albert Beltman (alto saxophone and clarinet); Simon Rigter (tenor saxophone); John Ruocco and Ab Schaap (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Nils van Haften (baritone saxophone); Rob van Bavel (piano); Martijn van Iterson (guitar); Jan Voogd (bass); Erik Ineke (drums); John Ruocco (musical director)