To say that this past spring didn’t exactly flower for the jazz community would be a gross understatement. With the quarantine and shuttering of venues, musical plans simply withered away. For trombonist Marshall Gilkes, who was set to embark on a busy touring season, the situation birthed a seriously altered reality. “I was going to be gone more in this period than ever before in my life,” he reveals. Gilkes’ March-to-July plans had included tours with Makoto Ozone, Maria Schneider, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and trombone quartet Slide Monsters, plus some playing with the Brass Band of Battle Creek and an international assortment of educational residencies in cities like Philadelphia, Calgary, and Osaka. All of it was wiped off the calendar, along with recording sessions in April for Gilkes’ first trio album.
That last cancellation may have been the most disappointing of all. “I’ve wanted to make a trio album since I released Sound Stories [in 2012],” Gilkes notes. “There’s just something about the register of the trombone and its timbre and the way it rings a certain way with bass and drums that I love.”
Renowned for his wide range, warm and embracing tone, Herculean chops, and fearsome flexibility, Gilkes often makes his mark in the largest of settings. His horn thrives in thick complexity, a fact made clear through his work as a mainstay in Schneider’s celebrated orchestra and as a four-year member of Germany’s WDR Big Band—an ensemble that appears on the trombonist’s Grammy-nominated Köln and its follow-up set Always Forward. But to pigeonhole him as a big-band player would be a mistake. He initially turned heads fronting a quartet on his 2005 debut Edenderry, and followed that up with two enthralling quintet albums, 2008’s Lost Words and the aforementioned Sound Stories. Given his penchant for thinking big in those small surroundings, it’s no surprise that an even more compact format called to him. But COVID-19 didn’t care.
Still, rather than dwell on the negative, Gilkes used the lockdown situation to his own advantage. He spent time practicing and writing at his Beacon, New York home, making sure that he’d be ready to record whenever the moment finally arose. “I was standing in my kitchen one day in June,” he recalls, “and I just decided to email the manager at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn to ask if they had any plans to open. He wrote back, said that they were going to start in early July, and gave me some dates.”
After checking in with his trio mates—bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn—Gilkes scheduled the sessions and made final preparations. But of course this wasn’t going to be business as usual: Extended musician access to the studio’s control room was a no-no, social distancing and masks in common areas were required, and a remote mix setup would be a must. Unfazed, Gilkes and his bandmates took it all in stride. At the trombonist’s suggestion, monitors were set up in the live room to avoid the need for control-room playback visits. Communicating at a distance presented no problems. And the virtual mix meeting, arranged through a high-resolution audio stream and sorted out with an accompanying text chat, gave Gilkes (in Beacon) and engineer Aaron Nevezie (in Brooklyn) the opportunity to work together while apart.
The album, named Waiting to Continue, is a reflection both of the times and of long-held ambitions. The all-original program contains pieces slated for the canceled April sessions along with some new additions, and everything from the blues to through-composed material to ballads and beyond figures into the playlist. The tuneful title cut bookends a hopeful happening in seven with thematically aligned chorales that Gilkes recorded at home. “The Usual” whimsically sashays through variable-speed swing. “Taconic Turns,” which came to Gilkes while driving the titular New York parkway, rides the twists and curves of its inspiration. And “New Normal,” referencing a common phrase of the moment, bounds along with glee. All the while, Nakamura and Penn reflect what Gilkes loves about their work—“a certain sensitivity,” “incredible versatility,” a keen ability to “improvise and orchestrate at the same time”—and the trombonist himself is in peak form.
Adapting to circumstances, Gilkes actually found solace and strength in the atmosphere. “I was a little nervous going in,” he confesses, “realizing that I hadn’t really played with any other people in four months. But from the first take it felt great. In some ways, with the way things were set up, I felt more comfortable in the studio than I ever have before.”