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Songs We Love: Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, 'Backbone'

The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra opened at the Village Vanguard 50 years ago this month.
Raymond Ross
CTS Images
The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra opened at the Village Vanguard 50 years ago this month.

This tune comes from a demo tape of a band's first-ever public gig. The recording engineer was a 19-year-old college radio kid scrambling to capture 18 musicians in a tiny basement club. But half a century later, that kid now runs a record label and deemed his work good enough to re-touch and issue as part of a deluxe 2-CD package. After all, this was no ordinary band. Within three months of that first gig, this group started making "real" albums — five LPs worth in the next four years, plus two album-length collaborations with singers. It remains probably the most influential large jazz ensemble of the last 50 years.

The band's leaders were mid-career "musician's musicians": Thad Jones, a distinctive trumpeter and the composer-arranger mastermind, and Mel Lewis, a drummer with deft cymbal work and a lot of experience in large ensembles. Never mind that big bands had long since become economically impractical in jazz; they had a difficult repertoire in mind that was rejected by Count Basie (Jones' former employer), and wanted to see it executed properly. So they handpicked some of their favorite players across age and skin color, rehearsed Monday nights at midnight — once all the television and studio musicians had gotten off work — and booked a Monday at the Village Vanguard, a 125-ish capacity club in New York. (The sidemen agreed to take $17 each to make it feasible.) It was an instant hit among fellow musicians, who were sneaking in to hear its rehearsals before it even played this first gig. All these years later, the jazz orchestra that has descended from Jones and Lewis' band still plays the Vanguard every Monday.

"Backbone" leads off the new set All My Yesterdays, which compiles two early live recordings, previously only heard as bootlegs; specifically, it's from that Feb. 7, 1966 debut night. The song's spine is a simple blues, but its skeleton is filled out by Thad Jones signatures: frenetic backgrounds which may have been made up on the spot, overlapping and overgrown ensemble passages, a sax section feature into the closing theme. The muscle is provided by major players: alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who runs wild for minutes at the start; short features for Richard Davis (bass, now an NEA Jazz Master), and Hank Jones (piano, Thad's older brother and also an NEA Jazz Master), Bob Brookmeyer (trombone, later a major big band composer-arranger himself), then Garnett Brown (also trombone), and then, both at once. Lastly, there's a feature for Mel Lewis on drums. Tune, arrangement and execution all told, "Backbone" is a raging hulk.

At this date, "Backbone" wasn't quite as polished as what would be heard on Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra albums. But what it lacked in spit-shine precision is more than supplanted by its raw energy, by the crowd noise, the shouts and hollers from Thad and his bandmates and the other musicians in the room — the folks were riled up. For all the band gave to jazz composition, it also played loud and fast, took heroic solo turns and swung like crazy. Not bad for a debut performance.

All My Yesterdays is out on February 19 on Resonance Records.

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