Gerald Wilson

[from Brick’s Picks in consecutive issues of the LA Weekly, 2011]

The Gerald Wilson Orchestra are perhaps this town’s signature big band. Gerald Wilson has that direct connection with this town glory days, when jazz ruled up and down Central Avenue and L.A.was second to only New York City in the quality and quantity of jazz. Of course, that was a helluva long time ago. But Gerald Wilson was there. Way back in the thirties, playing trumpet and writing arrangements for the great Jimmy Lunceford band. But here’s the thing…..Gerald Wilson never stayed back there. He left that era behind. He may have lived that history, but he’s not stuck in it. He kept writing and playing all along, putting out incredibly hip stuff in the sixties, the seventies, right into this new century. He’s had a vital, muscular orchestra all these decades, cycling in new blood and keeping on the veterans who still have the fire. The material is thrilling (including, of course, “Viva Tirado”), the solos are exultant, and the band always plays like their lives depend on it. Wilson, all ninety plus years of him, is up front driving them. The players feed off his energy and he feeds off their power. The audience gets swept up in all this jazz celebration. You see the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and you feel lucky to be there, like you’re in on a very rare thing. You are. On a good night (and we’ve yet to see a bad night) they just might be the greatest big band in the world. They’re at Catalina’s on Sunday at 7:30. One set only. Be there, man. Just be there.

And then the following week:

You write a few hundred picks columns and you know you’ve blown it a few times, raved about some upcoming show that was so bad people demanded their money back, raved about another that turned out to be tame enough for Leisure World, or was  maybe just ordinary and nothing special. It happens. We got carried away talking about Gerald Wilson last week. Made it into the greatest thing ever. So imagine our relief when it actually was. Gerald ran that room, baby. Him telling his incredible stories—“and Basie told me….”—and directing the fabulous band at the same freaking time. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world to talk over your own band. Or to introduce his family halfway though some piece. Or to break into a musicology lecture or a history lesson or reminisce after the bridge and then turn around and order a series of tenor sax solos that shook that room loose. And loose, yeah, that’s the word. This is the loosest band since Ellington’s. Hell, the opening number was downright ragged at first, the players warming up, but a few choruses in they began to come together. But not like a machine—-that’s the other tradition. The white big bands were the things that roared along like a Deusenberg full throttle, all the European orchestral tradition swinging hard. No…Gerald Wilson is from Mississippi and has the blues in his bones and even his most brilliant arrangements are essentially splendid extrapolations of blues feeling, loose limbed virtuosity and soul. When his band comes together it doesn’t so much switch on as come into being. They come alive, shake out the stiffness, start walking and soon are running full tilt. His arrangements give this band life, the players stand and solo furiously and the ensembles surge behind them. It’s all swing, passion, and exuberance and by the time they’re half way through the opening number, the music is no longer so much on the page as it is alive. The musicians feel this stuff, and the fans certainly do. The house last Sunday went crazy. Man, we wish there was more big band jazz almost this good.

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