Friday, May 6, 2016

Giant Steps: Woody Herman in 1973

By 1973, bandleader and occasional vocalist Woody Herman could look back on several decades of memorable recordings and consistently outstanding bands, the numerous editions of his Herds that he'd led over the years. It had been an amazing career, though full of vicissitudes and financial ups and downs, all the way back to those earliest days of the Swing Era, when his orchestra was dubbed "The Band That Plays the Blues" because of its appealing blues-tinged sound. Herman's recorded output was also full of ground-breaking recordings, such as those featuring the saxophone section known as the Four Brothers, which included, among others, legendary names  like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, and Herbie Steward. Herman had been celebrated for his willingness to listen to new ideas, try out different arrangements, and showcase the budding talents of the younger musicians within his bands, thereby becoming instrumental in bridging generation gaps in jazz. To a certain extent, his open-mindedness had allowed him to make music that remained current and exciting throughout the decades, way past the demise of the Big Band Era. It had been an amazing career, I say, and Herman was regarded as a living legend of jazz, but that wasn't enough for him. So that year he went into the studio with his big band and recorded one of his most successful, forward-looking albums for Fantasy—Giant Steps.

The record is absolutely fantastic, a creative whole that is even more engaging than the sum of its parts, an LP that sounds modern because it is modern and that features Herman surrounded by a group of excellent musicians including guitarist Joe Beck, bassist Wayne Darling, percussionist Ray Barretto, trombonist Jim Pugh, trumpeter Bill Stapleton, and saxophonist Frank Tiberi, among others. The song choice is rather eclectic, from the opening track, Chick Corea's "La Fiesta," a high-powered, Latin-flavored tune that sounds incredibly exciting in the hands of this band, to "The Meaning of the Blues," a lovely slow-paced number written by Bobby Troup that is only tangentially related to the blues form. In between there are highlights such as the funky "Freedom Jazz Dance," driven by the horns and the electric bass, "The First Thing I Do," with Beck adding some wah-wah effects to his electric guitar, and of course, the version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" that lends its title to the album. Herman's reading of this Trane classic is so good that one can't help but wish someone had kept the producer from fading the song out. Gems like these somehow deserve to last longer than a mere 4 minutes. Thad Jones's "A Child Is Born" sets an atmospheric mellow mood that is the perfect counterpoint to the explosive "Giant Steps," which precedes it. Herman even has time to step into contemporary pop territory on Leon Russell's "A Song for You," and the album is brought to a close with a swinging rendition of Alan Broadbent's "Be-Bop and Roses." Giant Steps is one of the many highlights of Herman's career, an LP that has definitely stood the test of time, and listening to it today, it's not hard to see why it was awarded a Grammy back in 1974.

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