Marshall Gilkes featuring the WDR Big Band – Always Forward
(Alternate Side Records. CD Review by Nicky Schrire)
Trombonist, composer and arranger Marshall Gilkes released his first album with the Cologne-based WDR Big Band in 2015. Three years later, he delivers Always Forward, a follow-up recording that celebrates the big band sound, pays respect to the arrangers that have shaped and influenced him, and shines a much-needed light on where big band music is headed.
Puddle Jumping kicks off proceedings with a driving, suitably dazzling big band introduction followed by a solo trombone cadenza – a moment for Gilkes to remind us that this tremendous document is a result of his talent, imagination and hard work. The ensuing bass line motif played by Gilkes’ brassy trombone a capella is also the first virtuosic moment of many to come. Gilkes and his WDR teammates are, without question, some of the finest players in today’s jazz community.
Another Gilkes original, Switchback, is similarly stunning. With a searing alto solo by Karolina Strassmayer and a tenor takeover by Paul Heller, the song exemplifies the joyous exhilaration of big band music: trumpets cutting through in their upper ranges; the punch of a unison saxophone section; the thrill of trombones barking out a syncopated bass line en masse. This album speaks to both jazz students who understand the scale of the ensemble and what that demands from a player and arranger, and jazz-lovers who appreciate emotionally compelling melodies and exciting groove-driven songs.
The Denali Suite is a highlight of this album. Named after Alaska’s Denali National Park, the three-part suite is ambitious, intricate and takes the listener on a journey perhaps not dissimilar to that which Gilkes embarked on with his wife and son in the park itself. Each section of the big band is brought to light in Gilkes’ arranging in an ever-shifting, seamless way. The woodiness of the saxophones gives way to the warmth of the brass. Rippling counterlines ebb and flow, offering up shades of light and dark, while drummer Hans Dekker’s constant presence is the engine that unobtrusively keeps everything ticking along.
Bill Milkowski’s thorough liner notes mention that Gilkes’ acknowledges the influence of Maria Schneider in the rhythmic feel of his closing track Always Forward. This is not surprising as he is a long-time member of her much-loved large ensemble. However, his fondness for woodwind double introductions on Morning Smiles and his rendition of Burdge and Robinson’s Portrait Of Jennie seemed to be a more obvious nod to Schneider’s approach. This is hardly a criticism as the result is lovely, especially on Morning Smiles where the bell-like wind opening gives way to the theme seemingly suspended in time, played on trombone with a simple piano, guitar, bass and drum accompaniment. Airier moments like these contrast beautifully with the denser writing we expect to hear from a big band.
What is most striking about this album is the strength, not only of the arranging, but of the quality of Gilkes’ melodic writing. An arrangement of a badly crafted song can only rise so high. However, an arrangement of a thoughtfully constructed tune with a sensical, memorable melody has emotional impact far beyond the arranger’s intent. Always Forward is a beautiful result of an arranger writing for musicians he knows and respects, with great care, musicality and sophistication.
Always Forward was released on 7 September 2018.