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Swing, swing, swing

The Tonight Show Band - Vol. I
The Tonight Show Band – Vol. II
By The Tonight Show Band

Amherst Records: 1987

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This review first appeared in the September/October 1987 issue of A Critique of America.

Doc Severinsen and the boys are positively old school – big band music is years beyond its position at the forefront of jazz – but if it is possible to elevate revivalism to an art form, they may have done it.

From the opening notes on, it is clear that there is to be no second-album let-down from The Tonight Show Band. "Volume II" is in many respects superior to 1986's Grammy-winning debut. The energy level is higher, the selection of songs stronger, the arrangements tighter.

As on their previous album, "Vol. II" is built around big band classics – songs like "Stardust" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside," with other chestnuts like "Georgia on My Mind" added in. But each song gets a unique treatment from the band, so it never comes off as a treatment. For instance, while "In the Mood" will forever be associated with Glenn Miller, Jeff Tyzik's innovative arrangement sets this version apart. The introduction is staggered rather than immediately full-bore, and the phrasing of the horn sections is distinct from Miller's original.

Similar innovations highlight Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" and "April in Paris," which the Basie band owned. In each instance, the arrangements allow what we treasure most about these songs to shine through, while giving the band members the opportunity and room to put their own stamp on it.

This release should allow Severinsen to finally attain the critical respect that has eluded him through his many years of serving as Johnny Carson's foil. As with the previous album, it is clearly Severinsen's leadership that makes this band – and his own solos on trumpet are tasteful and restrained while still radiating the power of a front-line trumpet player.

Filling out the trumpet section are two giants in their own right: Conte Candoli and Snooky Young. Both are given opportunities of their own to solo – although not as often as on the first album, and not nearly often enough.

Ed Shaughnessy turns in another strong performance on drums, and Russ Tompkins helps drive the beat from the piano.

The Tonight Show Band is bringing some of America's finest music from the past and keeping it alive for generations who have never been exposed to swing.