Ever onward for Marshall Gilkes. After snagging a Grammy nomination for Köln (Alternate Side Records, 2016)—a collaborative venture with the WDR Big Band (of which he was a member from early 2010 to the close of 2013) and one of the standout large ensemble releases of recent years—this sought-after trombonist-composer could have easily retreated to smaller scenarios and sideman work. But the very nature of his being as a musician—the urge to keep forging ahead—brought him back to the big band and the inherent possibilities within. Always Forward finds Gilkes manning the wheel in all respects again, with composing, arranging, conducting, and trombone duties filling his plate. And, as with its predecessor, the results are dazzling.
Like Köln, Always Forward focuses on expansive arrangements of material from Gilkes’ back catalog, new originals, and a taste—or two, in this case—of the classics presented in new shapes. The numbers that fall into that first category—”Puddle Jumping,” the piece that best demonstrated Gilkes’ astonishing flexibility on the horn when he delivered his debut in 2004, and “Lost Words,” the title track of his second album—prove to be two of the strongest offerings on the program. In Gilkes’ cadenza-esque statements on “Puddle Jumping,” his flair for showmanship is the selling point. And, of course, his ability to bounce from pedal to melody with ease makes for quite a show as the song proper takes flight. But as good as the technical aspects may be here, the entire performance works because of the writing—tight and tasty, and played out to perfection by this crack crew. “Lost Words,” likewise, benefits from what’s on the page. Yet the way the musicians translate that to audible truths—the reeds bringing a sense of warmth and comfort with the introduction, the entire ensemble providing a sense of uplift as the message gets delivered, Gilkes and pianist Simon Seidl each placing their signature stamps on the song—speaks of keen interpretive powers.
Of the newly-introduced material, the most significant in scope would have to be the three-movement “Denali Suite.” Inspired by a visit to Denali National Park in Alaska, Gilkes takes a tactic from his friend and employer Maria Schneider by translating natural wonders into sound paintings. “Part I” is a stirring display, with Johan Hörlén’s soprano saxophone cresting a summit; “Part II” trades in subtleties and lighter textures, giving pause to admire Seidl’s piano work and the rhythm section’s gentle and sure support; and “Part III” moves aloft, adding wind to trombonist Andy Hunter’s sails during his inspired soloing.
The other originals unveiled in this context—the pacific-cum-passionate “Morning Smiles,” inspired by Gilkes’ young son; the fiery “Switchback,” set ablaze by Karolina Strassmayer‘s alto, Paul Heller‘s tenor, and Hans Dekker’s drums; and the album-closing title track, using concepts and colors from Schneider’s palette while painting on life—help to flesh out a well-rounded picture of Gilkes’ tastes, as do the two vintage numbers that he personalizes and places in the mix. The band swings, dovetails, swells, and soars on his reimagining of “Easy To Love.” And the beauty drawn out from “Portrait of Jennie” is in the plush horn bedding, gentle rhythmic support, and, of course, Andy Haderer’s dreamy flugelhorn excursions.
Köln was overshadowed, to a certain extent, by Schneider’s unveiling of The Thompson Fields a few short months after it, but there doesn’t appear to be much standing in the way of Always Forward receiving its grand due. This is another major accomplishment for an artist who continues to impress and grow.
Track Listing: Puddle Jumping; Easy To Love; Morning Smiles; Switchback; Lost Words; Denali Suite Part I; Denali Suite Part II; Denali Suite Part III; Portrait Of Jennie; Always Forward.
Personnel: Marshall Gilkes: trombone; Johan Hörlén: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Karolina Strassmayer: alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Olivier Peters: tenor saxophone, clarinet; Paul Heller: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jens Neufang: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Ludwig Nuss: trombone; Shannon Barnett: trombone; Andy Hunter: trombone; Mattis Cederberg: bass trombone; Rob Bruynen: trumpet, flugelhorn; Andy Haderer: trumpet, flugelhorn; John Marshall: trumpet, flugelhorn; Lorenzo Ludemann: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ruud Breuls: trumpet, flugelhorn; Simon Seidl: piano; Paul Shigihara: guitar; John Goldsby: bass; Hans Dekker: drums.