Tribute to a Generation: A Salute to the Big Bands of the WWII Era
The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra
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The concept behind this record is commendable enough: 17 classics of big band swing, originally recorded between the late 1930s and mid-'40s, interpreted by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in live performances recorded between 1992 and 1998. It does, however, beg an obvious question: wouldn't it be more exciting to hear a compilation of the original versions? The answer is a resounding yes, unless you're the kind of listener who just can't stand the lower fidelity of 1940s-era recordings, and prefers the much cleaner, modern sound of these tracks. That's not to discredit the abilities of the 17-piece big band that, in varying lineups, handles the material on this CD, usually with David N. Baker acting as conductor (Gunther Schuller assumes that position for a couple of selections). The program includes numerous standards from the repertoires of swing greats like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Carter, including "Flying Home," "Take the 'A' Train," "Song of the Volga Boatman," "Begin the Beguine," and "Mission to Moscow." Although the orchestra does play original arrangements, these can't compare to the spontaneous verve of the original performances, as crackly and hissy as they might be. Robert Bamberger's excellent notes both lay out the historical/musical context of jazz in the World War II era and supply annotation on the origination of each song. But you can't escape the feeling that this is a band that serves a more valuable function as live standard-bearers of the style than as recording artists.