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April 2001

Gerald Wilson
The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of Gerald Wilson and His Orchestra
Mosaic Records

These are among the finest of all large ensemble jazz recordings of the past 50 years, and Gerald Wilson is a great big-band composer/arranger/leader, although he has not received enough credit for a couple of major reasons. He came to the fore after the end of the big band era, and his outfits did not tour. Hopefully, this five-CD set will refocus attention on his major accomplishments.

From 1939 to 1942, Wilson not only played trumpet with Jimmie Lunceford, but also wrote charts for him, including "Yard Dog Mazurka," some of which was incorporated into "Intermission Riff," and "Hi Spook." During World War II he played in Willie Smith's Great Lakes Naval Training Station Band, and by the time he was discharged or shortly thereafter had assimilated a lot of bop into his writing style, as his earliest (1945 and 1946) big-band discs indicate. His recordings as a big bandleader were infrequent, however, until this series of LPs he cut for Pacific from 1961 to 1969.

The bands Wilson wrote for at that time were Los Angeles-based, post-bop all-star units containing top echelon section players and soloists including trumpeters Carmell Jones, Conte Candoli, Charles Tolliver and ace lead player Al Porcino, woodwind men Teddy Edwards, Harold Land, Walter Benton, Joe Maini, Jimmy Woods, Bud Shank, Buddy Collette, Anthony Ortega and Jack Nimitz, pianists Jack Wilson and Jimmy Rowles, guitarist Joe Pass, vibists Roy Ayers and Bobby Hutcherson, bassists Leroy Vinnegar and Jimmy Bond and drummers Mel Lewis and Frank Butler. The first album Wilson made with Pacific featured the work of organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, and it's a tribute to his ability as an arranger that he uses Holmes very sensitively, so that a nice balance is maintained between his playing and the rest of the band.

Wilson's compositions here reflect his wide range of musical interests. There are a number of blues of various sorts here, including his well-known blues waltz "Blues for Yna Yna." Wilson often wrote in 3/4 meter. "Aram" is interesting partly because of the inclusion of a taste of 4/4 in this mainly 3/4 composition. It keeps listeners on their toes.

There are also Spanish and Latin American influences here, as heard on "Viva Tirado," "Latino," "Paco" and "Teri," during which Wilson employs Pass playing acoustic guitar. There are many references in Wilson's music to things Mexican, including compositions dedicated to bullfighters in that country. Spanish composer Manuel DeFalla influenced "Caprichos," and there's also an adaptation by Wilson of a DeFalla theme, "Chanson du Feu Follet." Modal selections include Wilson's original "Patterns" and versions of "Milestones" and "So What." When Wilson's band wants to lay back its ears and swing, it does so with the best of them, as on "Emerge," "Eric" and "Perdido." And if you dig lovely ballads, try "Josefina," "El Viti" and a very nice cover of "'Round Midnight."

Wilson's arrangements are uniformly rich and full of contrasts. On "El Viti" he employs eight-part harmony for brass. The quality of the solos is consistently high. Not only is Wilson's band full of fine improvisers, they play with constant inspiration. Many are familiar to knowledgeable jazz fans, but a few aren't. Pay particular attention to the alto-sax work of Anthony Ortega, who played Charlie Parkerish solos in 1953 when he was with Lionel Hampton, but continued to evolve and improve his chops into the 1960s. Here his work may have a general similarity to Eric Dolphy's, but is quite original and full of imagination and surprises.

This set can only be purchased directly from Mosaic Records, www.mosaicrecords.com.

Originally published in April 2001
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