10/29/03

Gerald Wilson Orchestra Live at Birdland

In celebration of his New York, New Sound CD for the Mack Avenue label, Gerald Wilson did a Monday night at Birdland surrounded by many of the New York old pros who made the recording with him earlier this year. There were some changes, however. Renee Rosnes, who shared the piano assignment with Kenny Barron on the record date, had the bench all to herself his time. The ebullient Wilson had her play pre-theme, opening solos on Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” Ellington and Tizol’s “Perdido” and his own “Blues for the Count.” On the second and last of these he urged her to emulate Duke and Basie, which she did, with essences and references rather than direct re-creations.

On “Milestones,” which began the evening, buoyed by bassist Charles Fambrough and drummer Lewis Nash, Rosnes swiftly pushed the band into the punchy theme, setting a pace that surged into a trumpet solo by Jimmy Owens that crackled like bacon over a high flame, with the reeds serving as a skillet. Jesse Davis’ uplifting alto sax, backed by the trumpets, burned next. The next two soloists were not on the New York recording. They came with Wilson from California, specifically from the jazz program at UCLA where Gerald teaches, and proved to be young firebrands. First it was trombonist Isaac Smith, lippin’ and slidin’ with fervor and bite; then Kamasi Washington, a defensive end of a tenor player with a sound and an attitude as large as his frame, ranging over a field of trombones. Guitarist Anthony Wilson, Gerald’s son, also part of the California contingent, picked a solo that achieved the trifecta of speed, round sound and clarity of articulation. Before the theme reemerged there were exciting crosscurrents among the reeds and brass.

“Perdido,” the only entry that was not from the CD, had a mellow solo from lead alto Jerry Dodgion (replete with a subtle reference to Bird), a high-octane outing from lead trumpeter Jon Faddis and more robust tenor from Washington. The vibrant ensemble then came to the fore with Nash catching all the nuances beautifully before soloing with his customary aplomb.

On “Blues for the Count” former Crusader (and Mack Avenue’s producer) Stix Hooper became the propeller behind the drum set. Jimmy Owens and Sean Jones, the veteran and the youngblood, got a circular energy field going in their trumpet exchanges. Trombonist Dennis Wilson, who spent 10 years with Basie beginning in 1977, manipulated his plunger, and then Frank Wess, one of the Count’s most illustrious alumni, brought his tenor sax warmth and wisdom into play. Rosnes then led back into the ensemble, which executed the very effective triple pianissimo into triple fortissimo passages, originally suggested by Basie when Wilson was first writing the number. Coltrane’s “Equinox” immersed the audience in the blues with the building, blending sounds of the sections. Trombonists Benny Powell, Wilson and Smith traded soulful fours and, after a reeds soli, baritone saxist Jay Brandford blew deep in both register and feeling.

Anthony Wilson showed his tender, reflective side in his feature on the ballad “Teri.” It came after “Blues For the Count” and before one of Gerald’s originals from the ’60s, “Blues for Yna Yna,” a calming sea of a jazz waltz that used four flugelhorns as a transport. Owens soloed on his flugel and Wess stepped up for another classic tenor blow. Wilson used Brandford’s baritone to bolster a four-trombone passage in the arrangement and Rosnes wove silken threads in and out of the full ensemble’s tapestry.

The set ended, as it had begun—up tempo—with “Nancy Jo.” Wilson said, “I was thinking about Bird when I wrote the bridge.” The overall piece inspired insistently hard-grooving solos from Jesse Davis and the Sean Jones, definitely the next young trumpeter to keep your ears on.

As good as the CD is, nothing can match the experiencing the power surge and joie de vivre of a jazz orchestra in person. Wilson at 85, concurrent with his writing skills, is still a most animated exhorter of a conductor. His spirit glowed in front of the band. The people who filled the room—many musicians included—were ready for Gerald and he was ready for them. By the time we left at intermission Birdland was still abuzz—and a sizable line, three abreast, waited on the sidewalk for the second set.

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