Gerald Wilson Orchestra – Detroit – Mack Avenue Record

by | Oct 12, 2009 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Gerald Wilson Orchestra – Detroit – Mack Avenue Records MAC 1049, 62:51 ****1/2:

(Artists include: Gerald Wilson, conductor, composer, arranger; Ron Barrows, trumpet,; Sean Jones, trumpet; Jackie Kelso, alto & soprano sax; Kamasi Washington, tenor sax; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Brian O’Rourke, piano; Trey Henry, bass; Mel Lee, drums, Yvette Devereaux, violin; and Hubert Laws, flute (on tracks, 7 & 8))

There are not many more superlatives that can be heaped on Gerald Wilson. After all, he has been on the jazz scene longer than most any other musician (along with Hank Jones). Wilson has been nominated for six Grammy awards and is rightfully an NEA Jazz Master. Since his beginnings with the Lunceford  band in 1939-1942, stays with Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie (as a trumpeter), and a Pacific Jazz Records 1960s book of work as a band leader (chronicled in a gorgeous Mosaic box set) Gerald has continued leading a Los Angeles based big band that still thrives. He was commissioned for the 50th Anniversary of the Monterey Jazz Festival to write a seven-part suite honoring the Festival, due to the fact that Wilson had played at Monterey during each decade of the Festival’s existence.

When it came to honoring the 30th Anniversary of the Detroit Jazz Festival, it was probably an easy decision to hire Gerald Wilson to compose a six-part paean to honor the city of Detroit, the home of many past jazz luminaries (i.e. Hank, Elvin, and Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Roland Hanna, Barry Harris-just to name a few). Keeping in mind that Gerald Wilson is now 91 years old as of last month, it is remarkable that Gerald has written a commemorative suite to rival that of Monterey’s. He has lost not an ounce of his creative juices, as on Detroit, Wilson has honored the city where he attended high school in the mid to late 30s fostering his jazz education at Cass Technical High School.

Wilson opens his tribute to the Motor City with Blues on Belle Isle, which pays tribute to a park on the Detroit River. As usual Wilson’s theme here is vibrantly carried out by the horn section with Randall Willis taking opening solo on alto sax. Wilson’s star new acquisition on violin, Yvette Devereaux, next steps up with a sweet solo. Guest trumpeter Sean Jones has several choruses of power trumpet backed by the horns, and Gerald’s talented son, Anthony, has a solo that brings to mind Kenny Burrell, who was featured on the Monterey tribute two years ago.

Cass Tech, named for Wilson’s alma mater, is based on Benny Golson’s Along Came Betty, and earns its subtitle Variations on a Theme by BG. Anthony Wilson again shines here on this mid-tempo swinger, as do Brian O’Rourke, and Kamasi Washington, on tenor sax. The ballad Detroit follows, and Wilson states in the liner notes that two notes of the song’s theme actually say “Detroit.” You can tell that this is Wilson’s love tribute to one of the major cities in his life’s journey. Randall Willis’ flute opening on Detroit is so pretty, and Kamasi Washington, backed by the swelling brass section, caps this theme song.

Miss Gretchen is next and it honors both Gretchen Valade, the owner of Mack Records, as well as Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge. In an inventive spark, Wilson has violinist Devereaux play Ben Webster’s famous solo on the bridge section of the Chelsea Bridge theme. Before Motown makes use of Wilson’s time honored strength of including Latin themes in his compositions, which dates back to the 60s when Gerald made Los Angeles his permanent home, and was influenced by the strong Hispanic population of Southern California. Before Motown also brings to mind Viva Tirado, one of Wilson’s most famous Latin-influenced hits.

The Detroit suite is closed with The Detroit River which boasts eight solos spread amongst band members. Jack Kelso’s soprano solo is my favorite as well as Eric Jorgensen’s gut bucket trombone blasts.

As a special bonus, Mack Records has included two previously unreleased tracks from Wilson’s New York band, the extended twelve minute Everywhere, where special guest Hubert Laws, on flute, opens this swaggering number before Kamasi Washington really digs in on tenor and shows impressive range. The other New York band number, Aram, done here in waltz time, was introduced way back in the 60s on Wilson’s well known Portraits.

Hopefully, there will be another milestone Festival anniversary in 2010, which will keep Gerald Wilson’s fertile imagination active. He is a national jazz treasure that deserves  tribute CDs done in HIS honor. The only problem is that only Wilson has the longevity to write his own magnum opus….

TrackList: Blues on Belle Isle, Cass Tech, Detroit, Miss Gretchen, Before Motown, The Detroit River, Everywhere, Aram

– Jeff Krow

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