In his early 20s, Gerald Wilson began his apprenticeship with the Jimmy Lunceford big band. From 1944 to the eve of his 30s he ran his own big band. The enthusiastic sleevenote for this new CD talks of artistic dedication in giving that up for further study, but Wilson had what was needed to get back into work afterwards. He’s worked hard and done loads, even the symphonic composition 5/21/1972, premièred a couple of years back by the LA Philharmonic—besides classy commercial work, and broadcasting and teaching.
Lunceford’s band thrived by having different books for different residences: one week jazz, a fortnight light classics, another week a jazz-free dancing zone, et cetera. It began as a college band and was maybe the first non-white band of comprehensive legit accomplishment (et cetera!) which could play jazz on the level of “Uptown Blues”: a harbinger of bands to come, with personnel nearer to being graduates of music schools than musicians formed entirely within older jazz tradition. Wilson came in young just as Lunceford’s most significant individual musicians were beginning to leave, and soon became one himself.
He’s an heir of Lunceford’s in maintaining a continuity with Lunceford methods, playing not too differently from McCoy Tyner’s big band.
The personnel’s amazing: Jon Faddis, the veteran altoist Jerry Dodgion (from Dizzy Gillespie’s last orthodox touring big band), Eddie Henderson from Tyner’s, but like Benny Powell restricted her to ensemble work.
The present set’s focal centre is a new suite of three pieces, commissioned by the California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz: extending its programme of honouring major jazz figures by sponsoring one whose body—as well as their and his music—isn’t only of the past. Incidentally sponsoring the opportunity to hear some amazing musicians in the different and inspiring context of a topline big band.
The three-part suite’s based on the challenging inspiration of three diminished chords, a pattern of 12 notes which gave Wilson opportunity to write some eight-part harmony, not to mention what that did for the soloists, who here get lots and lots of extended space.
The suite’s opening is “Dorian”, with impressionistic piano prelude followed by clouded-sounding, almost threatening orchestral textures. Sean Jones’s trumpet breaks through, breathing with the rhythm section then in battling with the modal structure of the composition; and the band. The composition’s framework lets Kamasi Washington’s work up immense tension with the theme before Peter Washington, a great presence hitherto, takes an extended bass solo. When the dark clouds of the opening orchestral figures return they’re no longer frightening.
This considerably dramatic music continues with “Ray’s Vision at the U”, the opening phrase of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” leading into a peace-filled delivery of marvelous Rene Rosnes with rhythm: this set’s worth hearing just for her piano. The band comes in and the soprano saxophone solo sounds like something a programmatic titling might refer to as the recovery of natural vigour following a battle and then relaxation. “Blues for Manhattan” concludes this suite for the new dark days, the theme stated as an ostinato figure in the reed section with brass punctuations. As Sean Jones again, there’s inspiring trombone from the noble-toned Dennis Wilson, who obviously has great confidence in his section-mate Louis Bonilla, playing a solo only another one of the class of Bonilla’s could follow adequately. Muted and with individual misty tone, the second soloist lightens things on the way to a joyous trading of fours with Dennis W. (The band has three Wilsons and three Washingtons, but it’s a good wine that’s said to need no bush).
The other music matches the twenty minutes of the suite. “Lomelin”, with something of the “Spanish” darkness of Ravel’s Bolero, has precedent in Wilson’s own output and in Duke Ellington’s “El Matador” for the blazing and uniquely stratospheric trumpet of the late Cat Anderson. Jon Faddis dominates the arena in “Lomelin”, going high but not into the Anderson belt (which was pioneered by the Lunceford band) though he sounds a bit like middle register Anderson. Faddis’s reputation suffered because he was Dizzy Gillespie’s young protégé at a time when he was working his way through Gillespie’s influence. People kept on trying to hear Dizzy in his playing—a stupid job given his now huge sound and individual phrasing. Ron Blake’s tenor is deployed with rhythmic force over brass before the trumpet resumes the centre.
“a.e.n.” is prefaced with Ellingtonish piano, and Rosnes stunning with Peter Washington and Lewis Nash (the great big band drummer he plainly was with Joe Lovano’s Tadd Dameron little big band, but a fascinatingly far from noisy one). Soprano is to the fore in the subsequent orchestral entry, and Kamasi Washington’s solo follows a general pattern established in “Dorian”, of straining against the harmonic frame of the theme. The body rather than the keys of his tenor might have been getting hotter and redder, before suddenly he’s given Jimmy Owens possibly his best entry yet to any solo. There’s no mystery about the soprano soloist. Steve Wilson (former colleague of Nelson and Kilson with Dave Holland) plays like somebody making the most of his spiritual freedom. Flutes colour the contrast between sections with which the performance closes, the flute-led reeds extending the character of the guitar solo with which Russell Malone followed Steve W. Malone then has “Musette” as a guitar feature—Wilson did work a bit with Joe Pass, long ago—with very full orchestra subdued only in volume (Jerry Dodgion leading a reed section of remarkable texture). Malone sounds a little in the electric guitar style of post-bop Django Reinhardt, an unhackneyed approach. There’s also some blues style in his playing, and other than in the central section where Ms. Rosnes’ piano’s well nigh angelic there are little dark cloud-chords from the underlying, faintly alarming orchestra.
The Miles Davis feature “So What” flings open a window with a cooling breeze after so much dark-hued stuff. Jimmy Owens sounds like, well, Jimmy Owens, in a flowing style associated with St. Louis—tone a tad like Clark Terry, phrasing his own, Kamasi Washington burns, Louis Bonilla plays with a slightly burry tone but really as flowingly as Owens, an unlisted alto (unnamed) works well with brass toward the shift in dynamics which lets in Malone. I like the way Malone has added accents in the band work into which and out of which the solos move. After an interlude from the pianist the bassist solos, first with Malone and Nash, continuing to the conclusion with ever more energy and urgency over a pretty excited-sounding band.
Then he walks into “Love for Sale”, and a demonstration of section-work not remote from what was possible when Gerald Wilson recorded that standard in an earlier arrangement with Dodgion in the band fifty-two years earlier. I suppose Dodgion does get to solo as well as leading the reed section. The tail of the list of solo credits seems to have been accidentally docked.
The leader’s own “Jeri” is a solo-enriched, gratifying demonstration of Wilson’s big band scoring, and Renee Rosnes the great big band pianist. A relaxed end to a set which began with her sounding dark and heavy—she has a range of colour and fullness to be marvelled at. The excellent warm-up here is “Sax Chase”, renamed from “Triple Chase” because there are lengthy solos from at least five reedmen—published order: tenor-alto-tenor-baritone-alto. Gerald Wilson deserves this New York band. Trying to deserve him on that first track are—with the rest of the band—Ron Blake, Steve Wilson, Kamasi Washington, Gary Smulyan, Dustin Cicero.