Marshall Gilkes and the WDR Big Band’s Always Forward
“I’ve never been a huge fan of those purists that think jazz stopped after 1960.”
That’s why trombonist and composer Marshall Gilkes has named his latest album Always Forward, to push the idea that big band needs to evolve just as much as it needs to honor traditions. He’s enlisted the help of the Germany-based WDR Big Band, which I’ve previously reviewed in the Zoho Records release Rediscovering Ellington. While I was floored by the WDR’s precision and grace, I was less impressed with the overall sound quality of the release–a rare occurrence for the otherwise excellent Zoho.
Always Forward is on a different label, Alternate Side Records, and this is a whole new ball game (sorry, but it’s the MLB playoffs right now). My first reaction to hearing this big band play Gilkes’ stunning original compositions is how wonderful it all sounds, especially from the point of view of an audiophile. Big band jazz can sound fantastic, of course, but if you don’t have huge speakers and a big room you can lose the illusion of a BIG BAND, if you know what I mean. Gilkes and the WDR are so seamlessly joined together that the music, whether dynamic or intimate, is incredibly cohesive and easy to absorb. The best way to describe the sound of Always Forward is that you are swept up in its ocean of sound, as opposed to being constantly jolted by the obligatory crescendos from the horn section.
The superb sound quality of this recording is the key to this sense of unity. It helps that Gilkes’ music is beautiful and lush, particularly by big band standards, but my current test for the fidelity of these recordings is whether or not intimate moments can be conveyed with the same honesty and realism as those maximum-impact blasts. Gilkes’ trombone, for instance, is a marvel in the way it can sound so soft and fluid and full of emotion when it’s isolated from WDR. His horn just floats easily in space, a few feet off the floor, backed by all those other musicians on the stage who know it’s better to let this man blow his beautiful horn without a lot of fanfare or artificial excitement.
In this way, Always Forward is revolutionary. It takes careful listening to determine what makes a big band recording unique and worthwhile, but here the excellence is nebulous since it all feels so right. There’s a flow, a sublime feeling of perfection that comes from this album which is created through the synergy of a trombone, a big band, and a man who knows how to bring it all together without succumbing to the temptations of too big of a presentation. If that’s the future of big band jazz, I’m all for it.