John Kirby

The Biggest Little Band [Smithsonian]

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Formed out of alumni from the bands of Fletcher Henderson and Lucky Millinder, bassist John Kirby's large combo became the Onyx Club house band and a favorite around 52nd Street from 1937-1941. The vogue for small swing combos proceeded the band's emergence thanks to great outfits like Count Basie's Jones-Smith Inc., variations of Ellington's combo outfits, and Teddy Wilson's myriad backing groups for Billie Holiday. And while all these early groups produced great sides, Kirby's band deserves special mention for their highly polished and almost programmatic music (shades of Raymond Scott's contemporary and idiosyncratic cartoon backdrops are often cited in comparison). Taking in the bounce of Lunceford and the tonal complexities of Ellington on this substantial Smithsonian overview, Kirby mixes in thematically rich cuts like "20th Century Closet" and "Zooming at the Zombie" with equally involved takeoffs on the classics like "Beethoven Riffs On" and Chopin's "Opus 5." Sticking to their mix of tight swing and tasteful ornamentation, the band also do wonders for jazz nuggets like "Royal Garden Blues" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Joining Kirby are core members Buster Bailey on clarinet, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Russell Procope on alto saxophone, and Billy Kyle on piano. Each soloist shines throughout, with Bailey and Shavers also penning about half of the 32 tracks here. A fine introduction to a very unsung swing era group.