A top European jazz group, Germany's WDR Big Band is a sophisticated ensemble, featuring an evolving line-up of some of the country's best musicians. A function of the German public broadcasting institution Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln based in Cologne, the WDR Big Band are musical ambassadors charged with promoting jazz and culture at home and around the world. Over their seven-plus-decades career, the WDR have released numerous albums on their own, featuring such guest artists as Ron Carter, Paquito D'Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, and others. Recognized internationally, they have earned plaudits, including a German Jazz Award for their work on arranger Vince Mendoza's 1992 album Jazzpaña, and a Grammy Award for their 2005 Brecker Brothers collaboration Some Skunk Funk. Although much of the WDR Big Band's performances take place in Germany, they often tour the globe.
Formed in Cologne in 1946 as the Kölner Tanz-und-Unterhaltungsorchester under the leadership of Otto Gerdes, the WDR Big Band initially played traditional and classical music, working alongside a string orchestra. Conductor Adalbert Luczkowski took over as bandleader in 1947 and helped establish the band's reputation. With the growing German record industry centered in Cologne after WWII, the band attracted the top echelon of musicians. In 1957, they added well-known bandleader Kurt Edelhagen who helped push the group toward playing more jazz-oriented material. There were also contributions from other musical directors including Werner Müller, who briefly renamed the ensemble in the late '60s "the Werner Müller Dance Orchestra". Also around this time, the big band and the strings were separated, with the strings becoming part of the Cologne Radio Orchestra. After Müller's departure, Dutch trumpeter, conductor, and composer Jerry van Rooyen took over as bandleader, further pushing the group into modern jazz.
It was during the '80s that the WDR Big Band officially launched as a recording entity, collaborating on albums with a handful of marquee performers. For 1983's Misa Espiritual: Airto's Brazilian Mass, they paired with iconic arranger Gil Evans and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira. Similarly, they backed pianist/composer Jim McNeely on East Coast Blow Out, which also featured guitarist John Scofield, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Adam Nussbaum. Equally auspicious projects followed, including 1991's Electricity with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and 1992's Vince Mendoza and Arif Mardin-led album Jazzpaña, which earned the ensemble their first German Jazz Award. Around this time, respected pianist and educator Bill Dobbins took over as the big-band's principal director. Under Dobbins, the band continued its upwards trajectory, recording albums with such luminaries as Lalo Schifrin, Eddie Harris, Peter Erskine, and Carmen McRae.
Following ambitious albums with Paquito D'Rivera and Kevin Mahogany, the WDR Big Band won their first Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble for 2005's Some Skunk Funk, a collaboration with trumpeter Randy Brecker and his brother saxophonist Michael Brecker. They quickly returned a year later with Djangology, a Django Reinhardt-tribute showcasing guitarist Bireli Lagrene. There was also a multi-volume series of Duke Ellington-themed albums, a Benny Goodman-tribute with D'Rivera, and well-regarded albums featuring Abdullah Ibrahim, Arturo Sandoval, and Hiram Bullock, among others. 2010's Sing! showcased Dutch vocalist Fay Claassen, while 2015's My Personal Songbook found the band backing legendary bassist Ron Carter. In 2016, saxophonist Bob Mintzer took over as director of the WDR Big Band. That same year, they paired with drummer Billy Hart for The Broader Picture. Arranger Mendoza continued his long-running association with the ensemble on 2017's Homecoming. ~ Matt Collar