As the title of his second collaboration with the WDR Big Band implies, forward-thinking trombonist-composer-arranger Marshall Gilkes is committed to pushing ahead with his music. “I believe strongly in the tradition,” says the Beacon, New York resident, a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and a frequent guest artist-conductor around the world as well as a key player in Columbian harpist Edmar Castañeda’s trio. “But then I also believe we should push the music forward. I’ve never been a huge fan of those purists that think jazz stopped after 1960.”
Following the success of 2015’s acclaimed Köln, his Grammy nominated collaboration with the WDR Big Band, Gilkes has come up with another adventurous bit of modernism that showcases his vivid ensemble writing and peerless chops in Always Forward. A former member of Germany’s premiere large ensemble (from January 2010 to December 2013), Gilkes has joined the impressive roster of artists who have documented collaborations with the esteemed big band, including saxophonists Joe Lovano, Bill Evans and Maceo Parker, guitarists Hiram Bull- ock and Bireli Lagrene, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, bassist Ron Carter, keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul, drummer Bernard Purdie, the New York Voices, Steps Ahead and the Brecker Brothers. The resident jazz branch of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk radio and television station, the second largest public broadcasting organization in Europe after the BBC, the WDR Big Band is easily the swingingest band in the Fatherland, boasting a crew of world class players and impro- visers in alto saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Johan Hörlén, tenor saxophonist Paul Heller, trumpeter Andy Haderer, trombonist Andy Hunter, guitarist Paul Shigihara, bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker.
one of those musicians who continually just drops my jaw and leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.
“I originally knew about the WDR Big Band from a record my brother introduced me to called East Coast Blow Out (1989) that Jim McNeely wrote and which featured John Scofield with Marc Johnson and Adam Nussbaum,” says Gilkes. “I was in high school when I first heard that and it made a big impression on me.”
Fast-forward 15 years: the trombonist is invited to audition for the Cologne-based large ensemble. “They flew me over to Germany to play with the band for two weeks on a project with Patti Austin,” he recalls. “Then a year later they had me come back again for three weeks to play on a record for Mike Stern that also featured Dave Weckl and Tom Kennedy and was written by Michael Abene. About a month or so after that they offered me the position. I heard that they tried out maybe 30 guys for that spot before they hired me.”
Gilkes’ second recording as a leader with the marvelous WDR Big Band proved to be as hugely rewarding as his first. “Standing in front of a band like that and writing for it…that’s a whole other drug,” he says. “It’s one thing to play as a soloist and a member, but when you get to write and stand out front and hear all that hard work come back, it’s a pretty addictive thing.” And while his writing on Always Forward reflects a distinct penchant for swinging, as on the exhilarating opener “Puddle Jumping” and his reimagining of Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love,” it also reveals his classical pedigree. “A lot of my sound comes from listening to classical players and working on classical stuff,” explains Gilkes, who is also currently a member of the classical trombone ensemble The Slide Monsters, led by Eijiro Nakagawa and including Dutch bass trom- bonist Brandt Attema and Gilkes’ Juilliard School mentor, Joe Alessi, principal trombonist for the New York Philharmonic. “And it’s definitely something you have to keep up.”
We hear Gilkes’ beautifully warm tone and impeccable articulation from the outset as they launch into “Puddle Jumping,” a thrilling, clave-fueled big band chart that jumps back and forth from 7/4 to 4/4 while showcasing the trombonist’s remarkable facility and astonishing in- tervallic leaping on his instrument. Interestingly, that technique is not something he picked up from listening to Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino, J.J. Johnson or any of the other jazz trombone masters who came before him. Instead, it was tenor sax great Michael Brecker. “It all comes from his tune ‘Delta City Blues’ (from 1998’s Two Blocks From The Edge),” he explains. “When I was younger and working on that, I didn’t really know it wasn’t a typical thing to do on the trombone. So in a way that maybe helped. But I just worked on it systematically, trying to mimic Michael Brecker by using a pedal tone and trying to create grooves on top of it. Even now when I play a cadenza I’ll try to create a sense for the audience that I’m the rhythm section as well as the soloist. You try to create a bass line so that the audience hears the groove, and then you put the melody over the top and you go back and forth, keeping that idea going.”
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Gilkes opens “Easy to Love” with some radical reharmonization and tight unisons on the melody line by the brass. Johan Hörlén also offers a crackling alto sax solo here. “I’m a big Bob Brookmeyer fan so some parts of this tune, I would think, were probably heavily influenced by him,” he says. “I love people who take a new approach to standards, which is where this version comes from. I used to practice that tune in different keys a lot, just on trombone. But then when I sat down at the piano I started thinking, ‘Where else can I
“Morning Smiles,” a mellow number Gilkes wrote for his infant son Ethan, opens with a lovely melody played with uncommon lyricism by the composer. The gentle piece unfolds grace- fully, ultimately swelling to a rhapsodic crescendo with Gilkes unleashing his prodigious chops over the top. “When you’re a parent with a young baby, you experience sleepless nights,” says the composer, reflecting on the song title. “Then in the morning you go in to check on him and your child smiles at you in a certain way that makes you forget about the lack of sleep.”
Shifting gears, Gilkes and this crew next deliver a swaggering bit of big band funk on the exhilarating “Switchback,” which features two scintillating sax solos by Strassmayer and Heller and culminates with Dekker’s flurry on the kit over a band ostinato. The classical influence comes out on “Lost Words,” which is a greatly expanded take on the tune that Gilkes originally wrote as the title track of his 2008 album. “This is a very different version,” he explains. “Rather than having the piano play the introduction, I wrote an introduction for brass and woodwinds.
The statement of the melody is similar to the original record, but being that it’s a big band there’s obviously more to work with, so there’s more counterpoint and different things going on throughout the chart.” Pianist Simon Seidl plays angular lines on top of a series of stop-time hits in the horns. And underneath it all is a kinetic drum ’n’ bass feel supplied by Dekker. “When I first wrote that chart years ago I was visiting my brother, who was really into electronic mu- sic…stuff like Squarepusher. That was where the influence came from for the feel in that particu- lar section of the piece.”
His three-movement, 14-minute “Denali Suite” is an evocative composition that features Hörlén on soprano sax on the uplifting first movement, pianist Seidl on the hymn-like second part and trombonist Andy Hunter on the swinging third movement. “I wrote that piece after last summer when my wife, son and I went up to Alaska for a friend’s wedding and we kind of made a vacation out of it. We drove all over the place and ended up in Denali National Park, which was pretty unbelievable and inspiring. That melody in the middle section is something I came up with while I was up there. So I sang this melody into my phone and when I got home I started messing around with it. I started the suite in the second section and then worked my way back- wards, eventually getting three things that moved together nicely.”
Gilkes’ remake of “Portrait of Jennie,” a standard recorded by Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Wes Montgomery, Nat King Cole and J.J. Johnson, is a chart he wrote a few years ago. “I took the first few notes of the melody, which the horn introduction and interlude is based off of. And I just tried to take that and develop it through the woodwinds in the beginning and then the trombones later on. I love Aaron Copland, who uses a lot of that kind of poly-harmonic vo- cabulary.” Lead trumpeter Andy Haderer plays some lovely flugelhorn on this lush number.
The album closes on a triumphant note with the rallying cry “Always Forward,” which Gilkes says bears a bit of Maria Schneider’s stamp in the rhythmic feel of the introduction. He adds that the title is more than just a musical reference. “The whole tune is supposed to be about life,” he says. “It’s about the political situation that we’re all in now, the way that so many things are changing so fast with social media and with so many other things in society. It’s tricky nowa- days with so much going on, and sometimes it can get you down. But I’ve always had the mind- set to just push forward and just do your own thing and not worry about everything else going on. It’s the idea that no matter what hits you in life that you always have to push forward and persevere.”
— Bill Milkowski
Simply considering the range of music that Marshall Gilkes has played over the course of his career, it would be easy to assume that the trombonist/composer is a musical chameleon, able to alter his sound to fit into whatever situation he finds himself. After all, it seems unlikely that an individual sound would be able to express itself in such diverse contexts as the lush impressionism of the Maria Schneider Orchestra; the exotic chamber jazz of Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda’s trio; or the fiery combustion of New York’s thriving Latin music scene. But listen to the four albums that Gilkes has released under his own name – in particular his latest, a stunning set of compositions for the WDR Big Band named for its home base, Köln – and it immediately becomes clear how the versatile trombonist can integrate myriad influences into a singular and distinctive voice. Gilkes combines the spontaneous invention of jazz with the elegant architecture of classical composition; straightahead swing with adventurous modernism; virtuosic technique with passionate emotion. It’s a rare combination that has made Gilkes an in-demand performer, composer, sideman, and clinician since his arrival in New York City in the late 1990s. They’ve also garnered him accolades from critics, audiences, and peers alike. Most recently Gilkes received two Grammy Nominations for his latest album-Kö ln. Best Instrumental Composition and Best Jazz Large Ensemble Album. In 2003 Gilkes was a finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and has been voted a Rising Star on multiple occasions in DownBeat Magazine’s esteemed Critics Poll. Bill Milkowski of JazzTimes has called Gilkes “compelling, harmonically intriguing and ferociously swinging,” while bandleader Maria Schneider refers to him as “one of those musicians who continually just drops my jaw and leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.”
While his musical career has taken him to stages around the world, including four years in Cologne (Köln), Germany, as a member of the WDR Big Band, Gilkes became familiar with travel long before a trombone ever touched his lips. Gilkes’ father was a trombonist and euphonium player and later conductor in the Air Force, which led the family from Washington D.C. – Gilkes was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland – to New Hampshire, New Jersey, Alabama, Illinois, and Colorado. It was his father’s influence that led Gilkes to pick up the trombone – apparently much
earlier than he should have. Members of his father’s Air Force band recall their conductor, who by that time had decisively traded his trombone for the baton, suddenly keeping his instrument in his office. It seems his young son insisted on trying it out for himself, and was doing more harm than good.
That early experience laid the groundwork for Gilkes to study trombone in school once the music program started handing out instruments, however. While his early training was in classical music, Gilkes heard jazz from an early age through the Falconaires, then one of the Air Force’s premier jazz ensembles, and on his own initiative began collecting albums by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong. Gilkes ultimately entered the jazz program at the Juilliard School, though he continued his classical education in parallel, including studies with Joseph Alessi, the longtime Principal Trombonist of the New York Philharmonic.
From the time he settled in New York in 1998, Gilkes spent the next twelve years working steadily as a sideman while honing his own highly individual voice. In the ensuing years he’s played and recorded with a staggering variety of artists and ensembles, including the David Berger Jazz Orchestra, Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, the Christian McBride Big Band, Billy Cobham, Richard Bona, and Barbra Streisand. Gilkes released his debut as a leader, Edenderry, in 2004 with a quartet featuring pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Matt Clohesy, and drummer Johnathan Blake. He followed that with the quintet recordings Lost Words in 2008 and Sound Stories in 2012. His latest release, Köln, teams Gilkes with the German WDR Big Band, with whom he was a member from 2010-2013.
During his four years in Cologne, Gilkes worked with renowned soloists, composers and arrangers including Michael Abene, Vince Mendoza, John Scofield, Chris Potter, Kenny Wheeler, Randy Brecker, Patti Austin, Mike Stern, Ron Carter, and Maceo Parker. The influence of those experiences can be heard on Köln, which showcases vivid ensemble writing and arranging which marks the furthest evolution to date of Gilkes’ deft combination of his jazz and classical influences.
Those complex and memorable compositions have begun to attract notice from jazz festivals and educational institutions across the country and around the world, leading to invitations for Gilkes as a composer, bandleader and clinician. While he returned to New York in early 2014, life after his interlude in Germany has begun to once again resemble his childhood as an on-the-move military brat. He continues to work regularly with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Edmar Castañeda Trio while teaching and offering master classes at institutions including the Banff Center, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, and the Brubeck Institute. Gilkes is an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music and an artist for Edwards Instruments.
Marshall Gilkes composer, arranger, conductor, trombone
WDR Big Band Personnel
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
Mattis Cederberg-bass trombone
Lorenzo Ludemann trumpet/flugelhorn
Ruud Breuls- trumpet/flugelhorn
Tracks, Times, Composer
1. Puddle Jumping 8:31 (solo: Marshall Gilkes-trombone)
2. Easy to Love 6:40 (solo: Johan Hörlén-alto saxophone)
3. Morning Smiles 8:43 (solo: Marshall Gilkes-trombone)
4. Switchback 7:43 (solos:Karolina Strassmayer-alto saxophone, Paul Heller-tenor saxophone, Hans Dekker -drums)
5. Lost Words 8:14 (solos: Marshall Gilkes-trombone, Simon Seidl-Piano)
6. The Denali Suite Part I 5:04 (solo: Johan Hörlén-soprano saxophone)
7. Part II 4:36 (solo: Simon Seidl-piano )
8. Part III 4:19 (solo: Andy Hunter-trombone)
9. Portrait of Jennie 7:53 (solo: Andy Haderer- flugelhorn)
10. Always Forward 8:41 (solo: Marshall Gilkes-trombone)
Artist: Marshall Gilkes WDR Big Band
CD Title: Always Forward
Street Date: September 7, 2018
Add Date: September 10, 2018
Label: Alternate Side Records
Available at all fine retailers