Slide Hampton, the veteran trombonist who guested with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the IAJE last month and wrote all the music on their The Way, is a J.J. Johnson man, although he uses more multiphonics than Johnson did. As a composer and orchestrator, he’s far more conventional than Bob Brookmeyer—rather than voicing across sections, à la Ellington or Gil Evans, he’ll pit brass against reeds in predictable fashion. But his charts swing like crazy, and few writers active today get as much color out of a handful of simple riffs or push soloists along with less fuss. As it did at the IAJE, “Frame for the Blues” sends the VJO into orbit. Knowingly similar to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in both format and swank—on some level an attempt to reclaim this material for jazz—the piece was a vehicle for Maynard Ferguson’s nosebleed trumpet when Hampton worked for Ferguson in the early 1960s.
Revamped for the VJO, it becomes a donnybrook between Hampton and fellow trombonist Jason Jackson. The album’s newer pieces are a mixed lot: “Suite for Jazz Orchestra” fails to evoke its honorees—Thad Jones, Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, and Tadd Dameron—and never really coalesces into a suite (the Jones dedication is just “Giant Steps” in disguise, as to a lesser extent is the Dameron, which might explain why the subtitle is “Inspired by John Coltrane”). But Hampton’s three other new pieces are winners—especially “Past Present and Future,” with its infectious fanfares and Gary Smulyan’s croaking baritone solo—and the VJO proves itself at least the equal of any other big band in New York, including the better-publicized ones indentured to Mingus and Marsalis.