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Gerald Wilson - Big Band Modern Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 December 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    6
released:    2007
label:    Jazz Factory
reviewer:    Scott Yanow

ImageGerald Wilson is a living legend. A brilliant arranger, an inventive composer and a longtime leader of his big band, Wilson at 89 is a colorful figure. His conducting is both enthusiastic and infectious, he continues writing complex yet swinging music, and he is always happy to talk about his experiences in jazz.

Born in 1918, Wilson found his initial fame as a trumpeter and arranger with Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra during 1939-42. Attracted to Los Angeles by its weather, he has been a resident during the great majority of the years since 1943. After freelancing with big bands such as those led by Les Hite and Benny Carter, in 1944 he put together the first Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Very much open to bebop, Wilson had success with the band during the next three years before deciding to break it up and extensively study music. His arrangements were already complex, using four and five-part harmonies but he wanted to rise to a higher level.

Wilson worked with the big bands of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, playing trumpet and contributing arrangements. He had a lower profile in the 1950s, living in San Francisco for a time, writing for the studios and appearing occasionally as a trumpeter on jazz combo dates. His breakthrough came in 1961 when he recorded the first in a long series for Pacific Jazz with his Los Angeles orchestra. Wilson has been a major force in music ever since, getting to the point where he is now employing eight-part harmonies. He recently had a major triumph at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival with his suite “Monterey Moods.”
During 1948-60, Wilson only led one studio session and that very rare set comprises the first half of this Jazz Factory import. Titled Big Band Modern, the eight selections (six of which are Wilson originals) feature a 16-piece orchestra that includes three Duke Ellington sidemen: trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist Britt Woodman and tenor-saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. The arrangements often display Wilson's interest in Mexican music and culture, including “Mambo Mexicano” and a stunning version of “Bull Fighter” (featuring either John Anderson or Allen Smith or trumpet). The soloists are not identified but I believe Jerry Dodgion is the prominent flute player. The only flaw is a heavy-voiced singer (influenced by Billy Eckstine) on “Since We Said Goodbye,” which weighs that tune down. This important transitional set, which hints at Wilson's orchestras of both 1947 and 1961, had never previously been out on CD and has been out-of-print for many decades.

The remainder of this CD is a previously unreleased concert appearance in San Francisco, from 1950. Wilson leads what was probably a well-rehearsed pickup band put together for the occasion. Such notables as lead trumpeter Ernie Royal, trombonists Trummy Young and Melba Liston, altoist Sonny Criss and pianist Gerald Wiggins are in the regular personnel, with the guest stars being tenors Wardell Gray (featured on “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Indiana”), Zoot Sims (heard on an incomplete version of “It Had to Be You”) and Stan Getz (showcased on “Out of Nowhere”). The most exciting performance is the second version of the boppish “Hollywood Freeway”; this 12-1/2- minute rendition has solos and lengthy tradeoffs by the three tenors. One can certainly understand the enthusiasm of the audience, which is matched by the spirited playing of the musicians on this historic CD.

The sound quality on the studio date is quite good for 1954, with each of the musicians coming through clear and well-balanced. The live set is a bit rougher, with periods of distortion and some musicians being buried in the sound mix by others. The soloists come through well even if the ensembles are muddy. But for 1950, it is quite listenable.

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