Al Porcino Big Band

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Sounds From Another World
The frustration of a jazz musician: Al Porcino and his Munich Big Band
by Willy Hochkeppel
Süddeutsche Zeitung, Sa./So. 29./30.11.1997

After a guest appearance with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in 1977, he got hung up on Germany and settled down in Munich - Al Porcino, native New Yorker, lead trumpet player and first trumpeter from the glory days of big band jazz has set about, not for the first time, to form his own big band. Were there pros in this country who would meet his extremely high standards, and if not could he bring them up to his level? Yet what he had in mind seemed almost impossible because of financial realities alone. Classic big bands of 16 to 18 musicians had long become too expensive and public or privat subsidies have never been available for this kind of music. Moreover, an entire generation seemd to have become numb to this subtle sound with the long bombardment of pop and techno groups that often unjustly claim to be jazz.

Irregardless of all these adversities, the Al Porcino Big Band came into being with young talented musicians, yet it is as if they played against all the trends of the time. There in the barren Munich Nachtcafé stands the maestro in front of the bandstand in his Hawaiian shirt, gray-haired now, and carries out before a very full house the hallowed ritual of humorous announcements in English peppered with American-German. His smile looks pained. “At 72″, he complains, “I am more disappointed and frustrated than ever.” But this changes when the band takes off, with his countoff of “one, two, three”, and his face lights up.

The legendary days

The fine reputation of Al Porcino’s big band has already spread far beyond Munich. The band can look back on several successful appearances and is really something quite unique. First of all because Al Porcino belongs to the elite of the American jazz scene. In the legendary days of mainstream jazz he shaped the trumpet sections of bands like those of Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. He played with Buddy Rich, Count Basie (as the first white musician) and Dizzy Gillespie. The Terry Gibbs Dream Band can thank him for, not least of all, its unbelievable precision. He appeared with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nat King Cole and accompanied Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra. He began as high note player or “screamer” (à la Maynard Ferguson or Cat Anderson) with the Louis Prima Orchestra, then guested with Georgie Auld, Chubby Jackson, and the band of pianist Elliot Lawrence.

Porcino’s band is also unique because he has selected only the jazziest, most beautiful pieces for his book. The orchestra is one-of-a-kind above all, because it performs the classic arrangements such as those of Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan (who for some time wrote for Stan Kenton), Bob Brookmeyer, Neal Hefti and Bill Holman. These last two also composed and arranged for Count Basie. They all entrusted Porcino with their original scores.

A jazz arrangement is usually custom-tailored to a specific band. It is much more than a mere scoring of a piece; it determines the colors, the rhythmic and harmonic nuances. The arrangement actually serves as the composition; which is normally a simple idea or theme. The improvised solos are set apart like open statements, they play out the thematic material and develop it. It is a matter of spontaneous inspired moments which the soloist would never write down. In the best case, he (or she) will be inclined to vary or expand upon these ideas the next time, in contrast to classical music, where all so-called improvisations are written down in the sheet music to become fixed forever. The orchestra creates that undefinable moment of swing (”You will never conquer it unless you feel it”) so that the music never loses its tension or becomes lifeless. As Duke Ellington put it - “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” For Porcino, a band that doesn’t swing simply isn’t worth hearing. The Porcino band swings and also has that drive that brings out something compelling in the slow passages of a piece like “Stella by Starlight”. Indeed, for Porcino, only a few of the top orchestras bring this indispensable element of jazz to life. Count Basie of course, but for him, even more, Jimmy Lunceford, who unfortunately died so young. In the Nachtcafé, when the brass blow furious fortissimo punches over the sustained pulsing, layered riffs of the silky saxophones, those who know say it goes right down your spine; the air is charged by the magnificent sound of the band; a great feeling fills the musicians and the hall. And one has to ask, where else in Germany can you hear, in this style, something comparable?

Volume, by the way, in jazz as in classical music, is a “natural” dynamic means of expression. That means that there are no small boxes that drone out the whining of a guitar at an excruciatingly painful volume. And the young musicians, including the female vocalist, aren’t posing with silly clothes or wild hair-dos, they look as conventional and proper as chamber musicians. And of course they’re not swinging their hips or throwing their limbs out of joint. Lightshows, like those that try to disguise the emptiness of the music at Pop-circuses, are tabu. The music alone is the event.

The melodies and tunes from Porcino’s book like “How High the Moon”, “Days Gone By” and “I Cover the Waterfront” generally have the forms and blues harmonies that convey that special feeling of jazz. They are just as substantive as the themes of Brahms or Stravinsky; here as well, what counts is what you do with them. Of course we can’t compare the shorter musical structures of jazz with symphonic compositions. Better to see them set against, for example, the early sonatas; those with concise lyric content. Because the best jazz compositions, aside from live concerts, were limited for a long time to 31/2 minutes by the constraints of the old 78 rpm records they were thickly woven tapestries, amazingly rich in ideas; they benefited from a very economical mode of inspiration. Only when LPs and CDs came along could the solos be extended, and often; when in the hands of less-gifted improvisors, painfully overextendedv The critics who follow current trends and whose historic awareness doesn’t seem to extend further back than a couple of years take practically no notice of Porcino’s live presentation. Something like this is regarded as obsolete and much too individualistic; it doesn’t correspond to the taste of the masses, but jazz never did anyhow. The exalted critics demand something new at all costs, the experiment, the total departure. They naively long for the Avantgarde, a word which, in the arbitrariness of the postmodern era has long begun to take on a somewhat comical meaning. It is true that innovations in a large ensemble (as for example those that Ellington, Kenton, Gil Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi and with an ironic touch, the Vienna Art Ensemble have created, with their tonal expansions, changing time signatures and rhythms, unorthodox instrumentation and so on) couldn’t last in the end because of already-mentioned financial considerations. But even so, no one in their right mind is against experiments or innovations. It is however just as legitimate and makes perfect sense to play classic jazz live instead of stockpiling it in some museum archive of old tapes. And curiously, in the same breath, that big band jazz is dismissed as old-fashioned and worn-out (for historic, but mostly for non-musical reasons) the early forms of ragtime and blues are being re-discovered. Concurrently, a program for “The Critical Theory of Jazz” has been established at Duke University in the U.S. to make jazz more intellectually acceptable.

Al Porcino sees such regression as blatant foolishness and experiments like free jazz as fashionable silliness. These individuals would deny the legacy of decades, repress true jazz and hamper its continued development. Uncompromising, even doggedly, he remains concentrated on that small area, if you will, of swinging orchestral music, where he believes to have found the true essence of jazz. He is convinced that jazz, in this form, can address the present.

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who plays jazz as well as classical, is reprimanded for his conservative, imitational, even reactionary views. Porcino also speaks of nostalgia (or as Adorno of “eternal fashion”). But is it nostalgia when, in classical music, a number of ensembles present old music, when the repertoire from Vivaldi to Schumann are repeatedly played, when the opera-arias just don’t want to fade away? Is it mere “nostalgia” when the Al Porcino Big Band (actually in the golden era it was always “orchestra”) lets us hear the best out of the treasure chest of jazz, when it (as in written music understood) re-creates or copies these classics, or isn’t it instead the passion and excitement running through this “material” that enraptures the listeners and players alike?

Al Porcino is not a solo trumpeter, as already mentioned. But now and then when he plays a short solo phrase with perfect intonation, that wonderful clear sound is still there. It is as if he wants to blow all the frustration out of his soul.

Almost a miracle

What frustration? After the few concerts that earn next to nothing, the band breaks up again until the next time, and Porcino often has to look around for other musicians or soloists. The continuity that once shaped the great orchestras over decades is not there. Neither the money nor a space for thorough rehearsals is available. Practically everything must be improvised. It’s almost a miracle that the supercritical Porcino, who suffers with every weakly-played note can keep such a remarkable group going under these circumstances; - “Too Marvelous for Words”, which Al Cohn arranged so beautifully. Yet, aside from the very occasional big band concert this miracle doesn’t exactly draw the throngs that flock to Lourdes.

Now, there are certainly enough fans of this music in Munich to fill concert halls, if only sponsors and promoters could be found to help Porcino (he’s anything but a great manager himself) to bring the power and life of his band to a greater public.

To close, a short ironic story: The Richard-Strauss-Concervatory in Munich holds a department where large-group jazz is on the curriculum. Understandably, the students and the director of the school wanted to get Porcino as a teacher. They know that they would have in him, one of the last experts in the history, theory and practice of jazz, and also someone with an ear for all music of importance. But to hire him, even on a free-lance basis, was not possible because of “civil service regulations”. So with this dubious bureaucratic snafu, a city like Munich missed out on a wonderful opportunity.

The legendary days

The fine reputation of Al Porcino’s big band has already spread far beyond Munich. The band can look back on several successful appearances and is really something quite unique. First of all because Al Porcino belongs to the elite of the American jazz scene. In the legendary days of mainstream jazz he shaped the trumpet sections of bands like those of Stan Kenton, Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis. He played with Buddy Rich, Count Basie (as the first white musician) and Dizzy Gillespie. The Terry Gibbs Dream Band can thank him for, not least of all, its unbelievable precision. He appeared with Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nat King Cole and accompanied Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra. He began as high note player or “screamer” (à la Maynard Ferguson or Cat Anderson) with the Louis Prima Orchestra, then guested with Georgie Auld, Chubby Jackson, and the band of pianist Elliot Lawrence.

Porcino’s band is also unique because he has selected only the jazziest, most beautiful pieces for his book. The orchestra is one-of-a-kind above all, because it performs the classic arrangements such as those of Al Cohn, Johnny Mandel, Gerry Mulligan (who for some time wrote for Stan Kenton), Bob Brookmeyer, Neal Hefti and Bill Holman. These last two also composed and arranged for Count Basie. They all entrusted Porcino with their original scores.

A jazz arrangement is usually custom-tailored to a specific band. It is much more than a mere scoring of a piece; it determines the colors, the rhythmic and harmonic nuances. The arrangement actually serves as the composition; which is normally a simple idea or theme. The improvised solos are set apart like open statements, they play out the thematic material and develop it. It is a matter of spontaneous inspired moments which the soloist would never write down. In the best case, he (or she) will be inclined to vary or expand upon these ideas the next time, in contrast to classical music, where all so-called improvisations are written down in the sheet music to become fixed forever. The orchestra creates that undefinable moment of swing (”You will never conquer it unless you feel it”) so that the music never loses its tension or becomes lifeless. As Duke Ellington put it - “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” For Porcino, a band that doesn’t swing simply isn’t worth hearing. The Porcino band swings and also has that drive that brings out something compelling in the slow passages of a piece like “Stella by Starlight”. Indeed, for Porcino, only a few of the top orchestras bring this indispensable element of jazz to life. Count Basie of course, but for him, even more, Jimmy Lunceford, who unfortunately died so young. In the Nachtcafé, when the brass blow furious fortissimo punches over the sustained pulsing, layered riffs of the silky saxophones, those who know say it goes right down your spine; the air is charged by the magnificent sound of the band; a great feeling fills the musicians and the hall. And one has to ask, where else in Germany can you hear, in this style, something comparable?

Volume, by the way, in jazz as in classical music, is a “natural” dynamic means of expression. That means that there are no small boxes that drone out the whining of a guitar at an excruciatingly painful volume. And the young musicians, including the female vocalist, aren’t posing with silly clothes or wild hair-dos, they look as conventional and proper as chamber musicians. And of course they’re not swinging their hips or throwing their limbs out of joint. Lightshows, like those that try to disguise the emptiness of the music at Pop-circuses, are tabu. The music alone is the event.

The melodies and tunes from Porcino’s book like “How High the Moon”, “Days Gone By” and “I Cover the Waterfront” generally have the forms and blues harmonies that convey that special feeling of jazz. They are just as substantive as the themes of Brahms or Stravinsky; here as well, what counts is what you do with them. Of course we can’t compare the shorter musical structures of jazz with symphonic compositions. Better to see them set against, for example, the early sonatas; those with concise lyric content. Because the best jazz compositions, aside from live concerts, were limited for a long time to 31/2 minutes by the constraints of the old 78 rpm records they were thickly woven tapestries, amazingly rich in ideas; they benefited from a very economical mode of inspiration. Only when LPs and CDs came along could the solos be extended, and often; when in the hands of less-gifted improvisors, painfully overextended.

The critics who follow current trends and whose historic awareness doesn’t seem to extend further back than a couple of years take practically no notice of Porcino’s live presentation. Something like this is regarded as obsolete and much too individualistic; it doesn’t correspond to the taste of the masses, but jazz never did anyhow. The exalted critics demand something new at all costs, the experiment, the total departure. They naively long for the Avantgarde, a word which, in the arbitrariness of the postmodern era has long begun to take on a somewhat comical meaning. It is true that innovations in a large ensemble (as for example those that Ellington, Kenton, Gil Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi and with an ironic touch, the Vienna Art Ensemble have created, with their tonal expansions, changing time signatures and rhythms, unorthodox instrumentation and so on) couldn’t last in the end because of already-mentioned financial considerations. But even so, no one in their right mind is against experiments or innovations. It is however just as legitimate and makes perfect sense to play classic jazz live instead of stockpiling it in some museum archive of old tapes. And curiously, in the same breath, that big band jazz is dismissed as old-fashioned and worn-out (for historic, but mostly for non-musical reasons) the early forms of ragtime and blues are being re-discovered. Concurrently, a program for “The Critical Theory of Jazz” has been established at Duke University in the U.S. to make jazz more intellectually acceptable.

Al Porcino sees such regression as blatant foolishness and experiments like free jazz as fashionable silliness. These individuals would deny the legacy of decades, repress true jazz and hamper its continued development. Uncompromising, even doggedly, he remains concentrated on that small area, if you will, of swinging orchestral music, where he believes to have found the true essence of jazz. He is convinced that jazz, in this form, can address the present.

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who plays jazz as well as classical, is reprimanded for his conservative, imitational, even reactionary views. Porcino also speaks of nostalgia (or as Adorno of “eternal fashion”). But is it nostalgia when, in classical music, a number of ensembles present old music, when the repertoire from Vivaldi to Schumann are repeatedly played, when the opera-arias just don’t want to fade away? Is it mere “nostalgia” when the Al Porcino Big Band (actually in the golden era it was always “orchestra”) lets us hear the best out of the treasure chest of jazz, when it (as in written music understood) re-creates or copies these classics, or isn’t it instead the passion and excitement running through this “material” that enraptures the listeners and players alike?

Al Porcino is not a solo trumpeter, as already mentioned. But now and then when he plays a short solo phrase with perfect intonation, that wonderful clear sound is still there. It is as if he wants to blow all the frustration out of his soul.

Almost a miracle

What frustration? After the few concerts that earn next to nothing, the band breaks up again until the next time, and Porcino often has to look around for other musicians or soloists. The continuity that once shaped the great orchestras over decades is not there. Neither the money nor a space for thorough rehearsals is available. Practically everything must be improvised. It’s almost a miracle that the supercritical Porcino, who suffers with every weakly-played note can keep such a remarkable group going under these circumstances; - “Too Marvelous for Words”, which Al Cohn arranged so beautifully. Yet, aside from the very occasional big band concert this miracle doesn’t exactly draw the throngs that flock to Lourdes.

Now, there are certainly enough fans of this music in Munich to fill concert halls, if only sponsors and promoters could be found to help Porcino (he’s anything but a great manager himself) to bring the power and life of his band to a greater public.

To close, a short ironic story: The Richard-Strauss-Concervatory in Munich holds a department where large-group jazz is on the curriculum. Understandably, the students and the director of the school wanted to get Porcino as a teacher. They know that they would have in him, one of the last experts in the history, theory and practice of jazz, and also someone with an ear for all music of importance. But to hire him, even on a free-lance basis, was not possible because of “civil service regulations”. So with this dubious bureaucratic snafu, a city like Munich missed out on a wonderful opportunity.