Big jazz bands are a rare breed these days, sustained for the most part by the dedication of musicians willing to work free rehearsals and low-paying gigs. Groups like the Elliott-Ingram Band, which appeared at Catalina Bar & Grill Monday night with saxophonist Gary Foster as guest soloist, illustrate both the promises and the problems of this approach.
The ensemble has been in existence for about 2 1/2 years, led by saxophonist Steve Elliott and trumpeter Roger Ingram. Typically, on this night Ingram was absent, on the road with a different group. The other musicians were a mixture of veterans and rookies, with a few former Woody Herman sidemen making up the band’s nucleus.
The collective playing was good, but not outstanding; the arrangements were well crafted, but fairly predictable; and the solos ranged from fair to excellent. Pieces like “Limehouse Blues,” “My Foolish Heart” and “Gal in Calico” peaked when soloists like Brian Scanlon on alto saxophone, Mark Lewis on trumpet, Scott Tibbs on piano and Jerry Pinter on tenor saxophone made the most of their relatively short solo space.
What was missing was a sense of identity--a sound and substance to distinguish the Elliott-Ingram band from the numerous other groups with similarly limited opportunities to grow into unique musical entities. The showcasing of Foster on a few numbers provided a much-needed infusion of character. His playing, as always, included several superbly illuminating readings of standards like “You Go to My Head” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Foster has taken the Lee Konitz-like mannerisms of his earliest work and synthesized them into a genuinely original, always communicative improvisational style.
But even with Foster’s participation, the Elliott-Ingram congregation never quite found a voice of its own. More rehearsals and better charts would make a difference, but the most elusive missing element--and one that is essential to all successful big bands--was a self-generating energy-driven inner spirit.