Marshall Gilkes/WDR Big Band: Koln

The word has reached the street: Marshall Gilkes is a trombone badass, an original thinker with chops of doom. He has made three impressive albums as a leader and lit up ensembles as different as the trio of Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda and the orchestra of Maria Schneider. From 2010 through 2013, he was also a featured full-time member of the WDR Big Band, based in Köln, Germany. His last act with the band was to lead them in this new project.

For Gilkes, Köln is a breakthrough. It unveils his exceptional skills in a new role: composer-arranger for large ensemble. For the WDR Big Band, it is probably just another day at the office. These guys are pros, capable of nailing Gilkes’ challenging charts with a finesse that sounds effortless.

Gilkes’ concepts are diverse. For intricate designs like “4711 Special” and “Plant Bassed,” the orchestra becomes kaleidoscopic, expanding or contracting its sections turn by turn. “Edenderry” opens with a majestic brass chorale. In Gilkes’ best pieces, the influence of his former employer, Schneider, and by extension her former employer, Gil Evans, is audible. “Vesper” has meticulous detail, moods in pastel colors and inevitable melodic lines, as external manifestations of inner emotion. “Downtime” also has deep texture and graceful movement, as context for Gilkes’ powerful trombone statement. (He only solos on three tracks.)

Today, the regional radio bands of Europe are vital to the preservation of large-format jazz. The WDR organization employs excellent German players (trombonist Ludwig Nuss, pianist Frank Chastenier, alto saxophonists Johan Hörlen and Karolina Strassmayer) and American expatriates (bassist John Goldsby, trumpeter John Marshall). All their solos here are vivid personal responses to Gilkes’ songs. American Michael Rodriguez contributes a darting, veering flugelhorn improvisation on “Mary Louise” that justifies his designation as a “special guest.”

Listen to or download this album at iTunes.