A commonly-heard phrase in late 1950s/early 1960s jazz parlance was, “Will the big bands come back?” Woody Herman, leader of the great 1940s orchestras the First and Second Herds, had a retort: “Sure, next football season.” But there’s fresh, less sarcastic evidence at hand that a few did, with Herman’s among them: a new Mosaic Select set of the bandleader’s early-1960s recordings for the Philips label. This Herman collective featured the writing of pianist Nat Pierce and talented young soloists such as saxophonist Sal Nistico, trombonist Phil Wilson, and trumpeter Bill Chase, with bassist Chuck Andrus and drummer Jake Hanna engineering the band’s propulsive drive; old-guard critics like George Simon were moved to write, “It has the almost-forgotten sort of pulsing ensemble sound that makes you want to cheer.” As the buzz about the Herman big band grew, its leader told Philips producer Jack Tracy, “Don’t give this one a number. Just call it ‘the Swingin’ Herd.'” That’s a moniker Woody could’ve written a good-sized check on.
Many of the Swingin’ Herd’s members had come out of New England bandleader Herb Pomeroy’s orchestra, and they’d cultivated their cohesion and intensity through a longstanding gig at New York City’s Metropole Bar, where they were forced to play in a most uncomfortable formation–standing single-file behind the bar, gazing at their reflections on a mirrored wall directly across the floor from them. Well, what doesn’t defeat you makes you stronger and all that; the Metropole was where this particular Herman unit caught fire, slowly and then suddenly.
Musician and frequent Organissimo poster Jim Sangrey hipped me years ago to the power of this band, but until now the only title available on CD had been their Philips debut, 1963. That album kicks off the proceedings here, followed by 1964 and several live sets released as Encore, The Swinging Herd Recorded Live, and Woody’s Big Band Goodies. Throughout the arc of all of these albums, the Swingin’ Herd stays in an exuberant groove, galvanizing and contemporary. They had something good and they knew it.Some of the musical highlights include their high-octane takes on earlier Herd classics such as “The Good Earth,” “Sidewalks of Cuba” and “Apple Honey,” all updated versions that retain the integrity of the 1940s originals while transporting them into the Jet Age of the early 1960s.
Even more intriguing are the modern-day entries such as Charles Mingus’ “Better Git It In Your Soul,” Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” and a Coltrane tribute, “Dear John C.” The Beatles’ “Things We Said Today” is transformed into a slow, bluesy-swing number, with Woody Herman’s Johnny Hodges-like alto sax sound playing a prominent role, as it does in numerous other places throughout this set. The smattering of Nat Pierce originals such as “Tunin’ In” and “Dr. Wong’s Bag” leaves one wishing that he’d contributed even more compositions to the band’s book.
One track, “A Taste of Honey” (from 1964) seemed strangely haunting to me when I listened to it. Turns out there’s a good reason for that; Jack Tracy, in the set’s booklet, as well as Gene Lees in his Herman biography Leader of the Band, recounts the backstory behind that recording. The Herman band had booked a three-hour session to lay down more tracks for 1964–on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Herman and engineer Phil Ramone had already heard the news of President Kennedy’s death when Tracy arrived; Ramone had actually done several recording projects with JFK. After Herman talked to the band, the decision was made to go ahead with the session. Gene Lees arrived near its end, just as they were preparing to undertake “A Taste of Honey.” He wrote: “There is nothing especially melancholy about the chart on ‘A Taste of Honey,’ but what came out of the band was some of the most mournful music I have ever heard in my life. I would hear the band play that arrangement many times in the future, but the piece never had the mood that it had that day in the studio… the band finished the take and Woody said, ‘Okay, that’s it. Forget it for today.'” (Lees writes much more about this era of the band in the chapters “The Metropole” and “Dallas November.”)
Herman eventually left Philips for Columbia, going on to record two more excellent albums in the mid-1960s that retain the spirit of the above recordings: My Kind of Broadway and the live material reissued not long ago by Mosaic as Woody’s Winners. In subsequent years he introduced a fair amount of contemporary pop-rock into his band book, with mixed results; he also struggled with financial and personnel problems. The Swingin’ Herd of the 1960s stands as his last great band, and this new Mosaic set is an excellent representation of it, with superlative remastering (done by everybody’s favorite, Malcolm Addey) and new notes from Jack Tracy, in addition to the original liners by Ralph J. Gleason, Willis Conover, and Leonard Feather. I’ve been listening to most or all of it just about every day since it came in the mail last Friday.
Here’s the Swingin’ Herd playing Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie,” featuring Sal Nistico on tenor sax: