Gerald Wilson Orchestra – Legacy – Mack Avenue MAC 1056, 49:59 ****½ :
(Artists include: Gerald Wilson, orchestra leader; Sean Jones, Jeremy Pelt, Tony Lujan, Mike Rodriguez – trumpets; Dennis Wilson, Douglas Purviance, Luis Bonilla, Alan Ferber – trombones; Antonio Hart, Dick Oatts, Kamasi Washington, Ron Blake, Jay Brandford, Gary Smulyan – reeds; Renee Rosnes, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Peter Washington, bass; Lewis Nash, drums. Al Pryor, producer)
92-year-old living legend, Gerald Wilson, continues to blaze a trail that makes him a unique presence on today’s jazz scene. He may be the last of the old school band leaders whose history covers the vast majority of the golden days of jazz. Who else among us can modestly boast of having played with the Jimmy Lunceford Band, Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie, and written for Duke Ellington? Gerald has been both been playing jazz (as a trumpeter) and composing since the 1930s. His Los Angeles based big bands have been active since the 1960s. Wilson has an infectious spirit, and his joy playing his compositions and reminiscing about his life in jazz must be experienced live.
Wilson, in the last fifteen years has written themes and tributes to Monterey, Detroit, and New York. His latest release goes in two directions. Three of the first five tracks honor classical composers, Igor Stravinsky and Giacomo Puccini. The remaining seven tracks are a tribute to one of his many adopted “hometowns,” Chicago. The suite, “Yes, Chicago Is…” was commissioned by the Chicago Jazz Festival. Gerald lived in Chicago when he was fifteen and the Chicago World’s Fair had opened. He also spent time in the Windy City during his period with the Lunceford Band, as well as while being stationed in the Navy near Chicago in 1942-1944.
“Variation on a Theme by Igor Stravinsky” opens Legacy. Immediately, the listener is drawn to the power and heft of Gerald’s orchestra. Though not classical in nature, Wilson states he drew a few bars from Stravinsky, and expanded to a jazz theme noted for its brass and typical Wilson swing. Wilson’s son, guitarist Anthony Wilson, contributed “Virgo.” “Virgo” expands on a theme that Anthony wrote for Wilson’s Hollywood Bowl concert that Gerald shared with Hank Jones. It opens softly, then a warm trumpet solo appears. The reeds enter and soon Anthony has solo time on the longest track on the CD. Anthony brings to mind Kenny Burrell in his sophistication and clear articulate guitar lines.
“Variations on Clair De Lune” lets Gerald write for piano, his first instrument as a child. You hear the familiar melody of this well known classical composition as well as some blues honoring a favorite Wilson pianist, Avery Parrish. A swinging sax solo is heard mid-composition.
“Variations On a Theme by Giacomo Puccini” finds its inspiration from “Nessum Dorma” from Puccini’s opera, Turandot. Once again Wilson provides a minimal taste of classical with a maximum dose of big band swing par excellence. “September Sky” continues the Wilson family legacy as it is written by Eric Otis, grandson of both Wilson and R& B legend, Johnny Otis (and son of blues guitarist Shuggie Otis). This track is lovely, with an opening flute solo that continues for over half the seven minute composition. Eric has learned well from his grand dad, having been Gerald’s musical transcriber for some time.
“Yes Chicago Is” is a seven part suite of which no track exceeds three minutes, with several at just a minute or two. It pays tribute to Chicago’s Regal Theater, the legendary El Grotto night club, Chicago’s sports teams and Wilson’s love of the city as a jazz mecca. In the suite you find a gentleness and sophistication that Gerald brings to his suites, combined with a bluesy feel that Wilson always brings to the forefront. Horns appear with brief solos, or comp behind the rhythm section. Our Advance issue of Legacy did not provide solo information, but you are able to pick out baritone saxist Gary Smulyan, and perhaps Wilson’s new prodigy, saxophonist, Kamasi Washington. It was a little tougher to get a read on solos from the brass section.
With Legacy, Mack Avenue Records, has released the last five Gerald Wilson Orchestra issues, all tributes. [And only the one in 2004 as a SACD – what happened, Mack Avenue?…Ed.] Every one has a been a treasure and it is hoped that Gerald’s robust health continues so Mack Avenue can let Gerald honor other influences and places in his esteemed career. Bless you, Gerald, you have brought big band jazz fans so much pleasure….
TrackList: Variations on a Theme by Igor Stravinsky, Virgo, Variations on Clair De Lune, Variation on a Theme by Giacomo Puccini, September Sky, Yes Chicago Is (Suite of: A Jazz Mecca, A Night at the El Grotto, Riffin’ at The Regal; Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and White Sox, 47th Street Blues, Blowin’ in the Windy City, A Great Place to Be
— Jeff Krow