Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra: Detroit

Mack Avenue Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.4.10
Buy CD: Detroit

I sometimes worry that if it weren't for the elderly icons in the jazz world, I'd have no exceptional albums to review.

Gerald Wilson is such an artist: a 91-year-old trumpeter, pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader who has been with us almost since the beginning of jazz. He got his start with the Jimmie Lunceford Band and spent time with Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie and, no matter the style, fit in with all of them.

Wilson has written or arranged music for every major artist you can name, and still performs that service today. This album was commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival, to commemorate its 30th anniversary. One of the album's highlights, a multi-part suite, was recorded by members of two of Wilson's big-band orchestras; he heads one in Los Angeles and another in New York City.

He spent five years during the 1930s in Detroit, and considers them among the best of his life; in his words, “I had only known segregation before then.”

In recognition of his fame, his bands consist of the country's top musicians. One of his guitarists is his son, Anthony, who has worked extensively with Diana Krall.

No matter the location of Gerald's orchestras, they both swing fantastically. Each of the suite's movements is named for areas or memories associated with Detroit. The melodic themes are moving, as are the solos by this great crew of musicians. You'll hear a couple of flag-wavers (“Blues On Belle Isle” and “The Detroit River”) and a lovely ballad (“Detroit”); the rest are smooth, mid-tempo, straight-ahead numbers that'll make you want to move.

It's not too strong a description: Gerald Wilson is a jazz genius and a living legend.

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