Detroit comprises a six-composition suite commissioned for the 2009 thirtieth anniversary Detroit International Jazz Festival, played in the studio with musicians from composer/arranger Gerald Wilson's Los Angeles home or New York City area. Curiously, there are no Motor City-based players on the disc, but the themes are based in certain locales from the industrial Midwestern City that has fallen on hard economic times but played a pivotal role in the development of Wilson's highly developed skills as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. A quite spirited and energetic music is heard here from the 90-year-old Wilson, whose charm and wit would rival anyone many decades his junior. It's a swinging affair molded in the traditional big-band visage of Count Basie, Ernie Wilkins, or early Quincy Jones, with Wilson's deft touch for embellishing the blues. Players like trumpeter Sean Jones, son/guitarist Anthony Wilson, violinist Yvette Devereaux, the fine pianist Brian O'Rourke, and particularly L.A. alto saxophonist and flutist Randall Willis or Kamasi Washington on tenor sax, spice up the band's ensemble and solo contributions. The suite begins with "Blues on Belle Isle," a bopping tribute to the riverside playground and picnic area Detroiter's depend on to relax and escape from their troubles. The vaunted school for many jazz legends over the years, a dedication to "Cass Tech" is based on the changes of Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty," and swings along quite nicely with a reharmonized melody. The title track is a ballad for the sprawling metropolis that reflects both its jewels and rundown buildings, while "Before Motown" is a regal and tough Spanish-flavored piece, and the finale "The Detroit River" goes from hard bop right into solos, with Jones as the strongman. In the middle is "Miss Gretchen" for Mack Avenue founder and festival financial supporter Gretchen Valade; it's a midtempo swinger reflecting Charles Mingus' start-stop, pedal-point slow downs and speed ups paired with Duke Ellington's elegance. The two pieces not a part of the suite are the near-13-minute "Everywhere," a unified, powerful, and modal retro-jazz piece reflective of the '70s a la Frank Foster's Loud Minority. The held tension and release of the sprightly waltz "Aram" differentiates from the other selections in that the band cuts loose a bit more, features brief solos from trumpeter Terrell Stafford or alto saxophonist Antonio Hart, and more accurately reflects the personality of the author rather than the city he loves and owes respect to. Making this joyous music, and getting paid well for it, must be extremely gratifying to Wilson and his bandmates, but what it really does show off is Detroit in a positive light, something it desperately needs considering all of the negative press it receives for non-cultural stories. Detroit, in fact, remains a great American city, persevering and enduring through ignorance and abandonment, and those who live and work there will be pleased that Wilson's music perfectly represents their shining spirit and swinging souls.
All Music Guide
Commissioned by the Detroit International Jazz Festival and premiered on the occasion of the composer's 91st birthday, Gerald Wilson's six-movement "Detroit Suite" demonstrates that after nearly seven decades in the music business, the nonagenarian composer and arranger still has a great deal to offer in terms of musical creativity. Wilson spent the latter part of his teen years in the Motor City, where he studied trumpet, piano, percussion, and composition at Cass Technical High School from 1934-39, and he still regards Detroit as a "hometown."
The opening "Blues on Belle Isle," which is named for a park on a island in the Detroit River, features the alto sax of Randall Willis, trumpeter Sean Jones, violinist Yvette Devereaux (following in the footsteps of the young Jean-Luc Ponty, who occupied this chair in the Wilson ensemble four decades ago), and guitarist and Gerald's son Anthony Wilson, who has been a mainstay of the Diana Krall quartet for the past several years. "Cass Tech," Wilson's paean to his alma mater, is a variation on Benny Golson's "Along Came Betty" in much the same fashion as Bill Holman's take on "Stompin' at the Savoy" for Stan Kenton over a half-century ago. The ballad "Detroit" spotlights Willis on flute, Jones on fluegelhorn, and the tenor sax of Kamasi Washington (Jones and Washington appear on both the Los Angeles and New York sessions).
Based on the chord changes of Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," "Miss Gretchen" salutes Mack Avenue founder and president Gretchen Valade with solos from pianist Brian O'Rourke and the Harmon-muted trumpet of Winston Byrd, plus Devereaux (adapting the classic Ben Webster solo from the release to her violin) and Anthony Wilson. Latin rhythms a la Wilson's "Carlos" and "Viva Tirado" predominate in "Before Motown" (which bears absolutely no connection with the musical genre of that name), with Bobby Rodriguez's trumpet, Les Benedict's trombone, and the tenors of Washington and Louis Van Taylor all capturing attention. "The Detroit River," on the other hand, resembles Count Basie on steroids, as trumpeter/contractor Ron Barrows, veteran soprano saxophonist Jackie Kelso, trombonist Eric Jorgensen, Devereaux, Van Taylor, O'Rourke, and Anthony Wilson all contribute to this hyper-charged swinger.
The two remaining tracks, "Everywhere" (a remake of the title cut from a 1968 Pacific Jazz LP by Wilson) and "Aram," are from the same sessions as Wilson's 2005 New York, New Sound (his Mack Avenue debut) and feature the New York ensemble. Flute legend Hubert Laws highlights the modal "Everywhere," while "Aram" (possibly named for the Soviet-era Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian) offers frequent rhythmic shifts between jazz-waltz and straight-ahead 4/4 tempi supporting powerful solos by trumpeter Terell Stafford (Director of Jazz Studies of the Boyer College of Music at Philadelphia's Temple University, and a member of NYC's celebrated Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) and altoist Antonio Hart.
- Robert J. Robbins, Published: November 28, 2009