BIG BANDS don't get around much any more. Changing times and rising costs saw to that. Nowadays you're more likely to find them in the recording studio than on stage -- that is, unless the ensemble is led by rock drummer Charlie Watts, who brings his British all-stars to the Bayou Sunday night. Still, judging by several new releases, big bands are still alive and swinging.
CHARLIE WATTS ORCHESTRA -- "Live: Fulham Town Hall" (Columbia FC 40570). While not exactly a jazz dilettante, Watts is smart enough to share the timekeeping chores with two nimble veterans, John Stevens and Bill Eyden. The result is a solid, uncomplicated groove that underpins this collection of mostly swing and bop standards. As you might expect of a 34-piece band, the ensemble includes a number of fine soloists, a mixture of seasoned pros and promising newcomers. But the unabashedly old-fashion arrangements derive most of their power from the brass and reed sections, which really roar on "Stomping at the Savoy" and "Flying Home."
MEL LEWIS ORCHESTRA -- "20 Years at the Village Vanguard" (Atlantic 81655-1). You'd be pressed to find a more compelling example of a big band in full bloom than this recording, even if you combed through Lewis' own estimable catalogue. As always he demonstrates a marvelously light and melodic approach to the drums, and the ingenious arrangements by Thad Jones ("Interloper"), Bob Brookmeyer ("American Express"), Jerry Dodgion ("Butter") and Bill Finnegan ("C Jam Blues") display the band's depth, color and finesse. Of all the soloists, alto saxophonist Dick Oatts shines brightest.
DUKE ELLINGTON ORCHESTRA -- "Digital Duke" (GRD 9548). Though its title suggests more of a technical update than anything else, this 12-tune CD is a surprisingly personal tribute to Ellington's genius. The reason for that is plain enough: The band includes several ex-Ellingtonians -- Clark Terry, Louie Bellson and Britt Woodman, among others -- who play here with great warmth, sensitivity and drive. Alto saxophonist Norris Turney's interpretation of "Prelude to a Kiss," for example, is genuinely moving. The band also contains several members of the current Ellington crew plus a select guest list that includes Branford Marsalis, Eddie Daniels, Sir Roland Hanna and Al Grey. Like the cast, the arrangements offer some unexpected twists.
ROB McCONNELL & THE BOSS BRASS -- "Boss Brass and Woods" (MCA/Impulse 5982). If Mel Torme and Phil Woods have their way, this Canadian ensemble will soon get the worldwide recognition it deserves. As Torme has done in the past, alto saxophonist Woods makes a guest appearance here, blowing hot bop lines against a vibrant backdrop of brass and reeds on "Out of Nowhere" and "Stereo Blue," then lowers the flame for the more sultry contours of "Quintessence." In addition to Woods, the album boasts a number of talented solos, including valve trombonist McConnell and guitarist Ed Bickert. Their improvisations, like the charts themselves, are tasteful and imaginative.
COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA -- "Long Live the Chief" (Denon 33CY 1018). Recorded in Japan last year shortly after tenor saxophonist Frank Foster assumed leadership of the band, this 65-minute CD bursts with spirited swing. Not only does the sax section sound specially rich and persuasive on familiar gems like "April in Paris," new tunes like "Hey, I See You Over There" and "Bus Dust" often sizzle (thanks to Foster and fellow saxist Eric Dixon). As far as rhythm is concerned, the late Freddie Green swings on guitar with his customary assurance and Tee Carson's spare and leisurely piano lines constantly recall Basie's distinctive touch. Finally, though not in the same league as ex-Basie-ites Helen Humes, Jimmy Rushing or Joe Williams, vocalist Carmen Bradford also contributes a couple of enjoyable performances.
GEORGE RUSSELL & LIVING TIME ORCHESTRA -- "So What" (Blue Note BT 85132). Many of Russell's finest recordings have been reissued recently, so it's hard to get excited about this pleasant but minor excursion into funk. The personnel ranges from a 22-piece band to a "smalltet" of eight players, and the sound is generally modal and restrained on the tunes by Miles Davis, Carla Bley and Dave Baker, save for an occasional honking sax solo or an insistent backbeat. Far more intriguing and complex is Russell's own "Time Spiral," a 19-minute piece showcasing the band's young soloists in a constantly shifting musical environment.