NEW YORK — ALTHOUGH there's no longer a dance hall in every American hoot and holler, the big-band sound survives in such groups as Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, the New Tommy Dorsey Band, and the Lionel Hampton Band. But in recent years big-band music has taken on a new role: jazz ambassador. Here in a brightly lit rehearsal hall, musicians are joking around, settling into their chairs, getting music in order. The moods is relaxed but no-nonsense.
This is a rehearsal for what might be called ``big-band heaven'' - an ensemble known as Superband XIX, preparing for what could be the most extensive tour ever made by a big band. Over the next three months, it will take these musicians to places like Casablanca, Istanbul, Munich, Seoul, Manila, Taipei, Cairo, and Moscow - 31 concerts in 24 cities on five continents.
The group is part of a series of bands and small ensembles sponsored by the Philip Morris Cos. since 1985 in an effort to spread jazz around the world. This band got its start last year (with a radically different lineup) as the Gene Harris All Star Big Band, which did a week-long gig at the Blue Note jazz club here and released an album, ``Tribute to Count Basie.''
What makes Superband XIX band really special is the fact that every player is a top-notch soloist. They include top veterans like Harry ``Sweets'' Edison on trumpet; James Moody on tenor sax; Ray Brown on bass; Frank Wess on alto sax; Eddie Bert and Urbie Green on trombone; and Herb Ellis on guitar.
And with them are some of the hottest younger players around: Michael Philip Mossman on trumpet (whose credits include the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra and the Gerry Mulligan and Art Blakey groups); Jeff Hamilton on drums (who has played in the New Tommy Dorsey Band and the Lionel Hampton Band); Gary Smulyan on sax (who played with Chet Baker, Woody Herman, and Mel Louis); and James Morrison, the brilliant Australian trumpeter/trombonist (he's playing trombone for this gig).
Leading the band is Gene Harris - the blues-inspired pianist and founder of the jazz trio known as the Three Sounds.
This collection of mega-talent kicked off Superband XIX's world tour last month with a concert at Town Hall here.
As saxaphonist Moody put it during a rehearsal break before the concert, ``It's an all-star band ..., and everybody's twinkling, aren't they? ... I like being with the younger guys, because they're so inspiring, and ... the arrangements are nice.''
Most of the pieces were arranged in a distinctly swinging Basie-esque style. John Clayton, one of the arrangers (with Frank Wess and Torrie Zito), said of the tour, ``It's incredible. ... It's a dream.'' That seemed to be the consensus among the players I talked with.
`I'M having the time of my life - this is a great band,'' said trombonist Morrison.
``I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to play such good music with such good players,'' said guitarist Ellis, who is expecting a warm response even from audiences that aren't necessarily familiar with the big-band sound. ``It's going to be phenomenal. ... There's a lot of energy from this kind of music, and they'll feel it.''
Some of the upcoming stops on the tour include: Warsaw tonight; Seoul Nov. 18-21; Manila Nov. 24-25; Sydney Nov. 28; Brisbane Nov. 30; Gold Coast Dec. 2.