Trumpeter Derrick Gardner is an alumnus of the 1990s-era, Frank Foster-led Count Basie Orchestra—a connection that’s immediately evident in the voicings and blends he has devised for his Big dig! Band, as well as in his tireless dedication to swing.
Although the overall tone here is celebratory, a seriousness of purpose deepens Gardner’s work. “Still I Rise” was written in honor of the late Maya Angelou; its buoyancy, harmonic brilliance, and swinging impetus invoke both her unyielding determination and the affirming faith that permeated her work and life—struggle, joy, and victory dance melded into one. The hymn-like “Melody for Trayvon” is the set’s most meditative offering, with richly textured harmonic blends and probing solo work, especially Mark Gross’ alto solo, which recalls Johnny Hodges at his most mellifluous. Gardner also pays tribute to role models and mentors on several compositions, including “Blues à la Burgess,” dedicated to his father, trumpeter Burgess Gardner. The Basie legacy makes itself felt most strongly in “8 Ball, Side Pocket,” a bluesy reimagining of Freddie Green’s “Corner Pocket” that builds from a Basie-like piano intro by Zen Zadravec through solos from tenor man Tristan Martinuson and Zadravec (again) into a full-bodied ensemble passage that shouts and testifies with vintage Kansas-City-to-Harlem brio. Channeling Green’s spirit, Kasey Kurtz lays down an unerringly sure, understated rhythm guitar pattern throughout.
Also romping through this set is Gardner’s ebullient sense of fun, most evident on the electronically tweaked closer, “Heavens to Murgatroyd!,” which he aptly describes as “a hodgepodge bouquet of chaos.” At its heart, though, it’s a straight-ahead swinger, brawny and full-bodied, powered by muscular and dexterous solos from all concerned. Gardner is savvy enough to use the electronics as novelty gimmicks and let the “real” instruments take care of the music—which is, after all, what we came here to “dig!” in the first place.