Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: Live at MCG (2005)
Sometimes a live recording does nothing more than highlight a performance that, while fun to attend, doesn't really bear repeated exposure. On the other hand, some manage to vividly capture the excitement, energy and magic of a show, making their listeners wish they could have been there. Now twenty years old, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestraco-led by bassist/arranger/conductor John Clayton, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Jeff Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamiltonhas been gaining an increasingly strong reputation since its '89 recorded debut, Groove Shop, as a self-contained entity and as the big band of choice for artists including Ernestine Anderson, Diana Krall and John Pizzarelli. Their latest release, Live at MCG, is a recording sure to generate some envy amongst big band fans who weren't near any of their ports of call during the group's '04 tours of the US east coast, Europe and Japan.
The 19-piece orchestra is the sum-total of a long history of big band influences including Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones and Gil Evans, although it's a certain sense of surprise in John Clayton's arrangements that lends the group its own personality. The set kicks off with a surprising version of "Georgia that, rather than being treated in its usual balladic manner, is a lively medium-tempo swinger with a powerful tenor solo from Ricky Woodard. It, along with a bright and funky reading of Horace Silver's "Jody Grind, serves to demonstrate Clayton's ability to use the full complement of the orchestra in ways that, while confident and strong, never resort to being brash or obvious.
In contrast to the vivacious energy of the first two tracks, the atmospheric "Nature Boy, which features Clayton's soaring arco bass, feels more like an outtake from the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration, Sketches of Spain, with the following "Lullabye of the Leaves introducing a kind of stop/start reading of the theme before heading into a relaxed swing section featuring George Bohanon's warm-textured trombone.
Hamilton, in his liner notes, refers to the Orchestra as a family affair, where arrangements are written for specific soloists in mind and honoured to the extent that when someone leaves the band, said arrangements are often retired. It's also, not surprisingly given its family orientation, a concertedly democratic orchestra; every member of the band gets the opportunity to solo at least once throughout the 73-minute programme.
Between the two Claytons and Hamilton there's a combined discography, of literally hundreds of recordings over nearly 40 years, that spans everything from pop and rock to blues, classical works and film soundtracks. But the true nexus point for the three players is jazz, and the longevity of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra proves that it is, indeed, possible, for cooperatives to succeed. Live at MCG is also proof positive that there's a place in contemporary jazz for that most unwieldy and impractical of beasts, the big band, and that it's possible to combine intelligent charts and evocative solos into a blend that is unequivocally accessible and wholly entertaining.
Track Listing: Georgia; Jody Grind; Nature Boy; Lullabye of the Leaves; Silver Celebration; Captain Bill; Mood Indigo; Evidence; Eternal Triangle; Squatty Roo.
Personnel: John Clayton: conductor, arranger, bass; Jeff Clayton: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto flute, flute; Jeff Hamilton: drums; Keith Fiddmont: alto saxophone, clarinet; Rickey Woodard: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Charles Owens: tenor saxophone; Lee Callet: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Bijon Watson, Sal Cracchiolo, Eugene "Snooky" Young, Clay Jenkins, Gilbert Castellanos: trumpet; Ira Nepus, George Bohanon, Ryan Porter: trombone; Maurice Spears: bass trombone; Tamir Hendelman: piano; Randy Napoleon: guitar; Christoph Luty: bass.