Marshall Gilkes / WDR Big Band: Always Forward
This is the second album on which Maryland-born trombonist Marshall Gilkes (pronounced “Jilks”) has collaborated with Germany’s superlative WDR Big Band, a world-class ensemble with whom he has also served as a member of the trombone section. This time around, Gilkes not only gets to solo but to conduct, compose (eight numbers including the three-part “Denali Suite”) and arrange (all of the album’s ten selections).
If that calls to mind a tour de force, give yourself a hearty pat on the back. Even in such fast company, Gilkes manages to stand out, writing with warmth and intelligence, leading the band with assurance and soloing (on four numbers) with agility and perception. Not only are Gilkes’ originals astute and engaging, his beguiling arrangements of the lovely standard “Portrait of Jennie” and Cole Porter’s classic “Easy to Love” are among the album’s many highlights. Before confronting “Easy to Love,” on which Gilkes has reharmonized the melody to underscore his musical kinship to the late Bob Brookmeyer, the band nails the rhythmically intense opener, “Puddle Jumping,” wherein Gilkes’ acrobatic trombone wails, growls and leaves no sentiment unspoken.
Gilkes wrote the charming, chorale-like “Morning Smiles” for his infant son, Ethan, while “Switchback,” which follows, strides resolutely along behind crisp solos by alto Karolina Strassmayer, tenor Paul Heller and drummer Hans Dekker. The graceful “Lost Words,” which precedes the “Denali Suite” (written to extol a family trip to Alaska’s Denali National Park), is a reorchestrated version of the centerpiece from Gilkes’ 2008 album of that name. Soprano Joel Horlen solos on Denali’s lustrous first movement, pianist Simon Seidl on the even-tempered second, trombonist Andy Hunter on the fast-moving finale. Flugel Andy Haderer is exemplary on “Portrait of Jennie,” and Gilkes shines again on the buoyant and well-named “Always Forward.”