Gerald Wilson Orchestra / Dallas Original Jazz Orchestra / University of North Texas Two O'Clock Lab Band
Gerald Wilson Orchestra
Mack Avenue Records
Composer / arranger / ageless wonder Gerald Wilson, most of whose recent albums (Monterey Moods; New York, New Sound; Theme for Monterey; State Street Sweet) have been built around sectional themes, returns "home" on Detroit to paint an earnest musical portrait of his adopted city, one that not only spawned the nation's auto industry but has produced a wealth of renowned jazz musicians from the Jones brothers (Elvin, Thad, Hank) to Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Betty Carter, Paul Chambers, Billy Mitchell, Curtis Fuller, Yusef Lateef, Dorothy Ashby and many others.
Even though he was born in Mississippi, Wilson's family moved to Detroit when he was quite young, and he was graduated from Cass Tech High School, once known far and wide for its exemplary music programs. It was from Detroit that Wilson launched his career with the Jimmie Lunceford Band, and the rest, as they say, is history. Wilson has been composing and arranging almost ever since, and the NEA Jazz Master and "Living Jazz Legend" has half a dozen Grammy Award nominations to his credit.
What is most remarkable, as epitomized on Detroit, is that, at age ninety-one, Wilson hasn't lost a step when it comes to writing sharp and exhilarating big-band charts. After framing a carefree mood with the snappy "Blues on Belle Isle," Wilson salutes his alma mater with "Cass Tech," a straight-on swinger with a sunny piano intro by Brian O'Rourke and pleasing solos by son Anthony Wilson on guitar, tenor Kamasi Washington and guest trumpeter Sean Jones. These are the first movements in the six-part Detroit Suite, performed by Wilson's Los Angeles Band; the last two (unrelated) numbers, "Everywhere" and "Aram," showcase his New York Band with guest flautist Hubert Laws brightening the landscape on "Everywhere."
"Detroit" weaves its spell with easygoing grace, "Miss Gretchen" demurely unveils her loveliness before cutting loose, "Before Motown" is bold and sassy (with apposite solos by Jones, O'Rourke, Washington, fellow tenor Louis Van Taylor, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and trombonist Les Benedict), after which the turbulent "Detroit River" engulfs the listener in a tidal wave of big-band bravado enhanced by O'Rourke, Anthony Wilson, Van Taylor, trumpeters Jones and Ron Barrow, soprano Jack Kelso, trombonist Eric Jorgensen and violinist Yvette Devereaux (more than window dressing; she really swings, whether in the "River" or on "Belle Isle").
Washington, Jones and Anthony Wilson solo with the always-inspiring Laws and an unnamed trombonist on the mid-tempo charmer "Everywhere," while trumpeter Terell Stafford and alto Antonio Hart relish their moment in the sun on the colorful "Aram." Gerald Wilson has been and remains a marvel, and Detroit warrants a place among his finest works for big band. Would anyone care to wager against raising the ante to seven Grammy nominations?
Dallas Original Jazz Orchestra
Where There's Smoke
Where There's Smoke represents a 180-degree turn for Dallas' Original Jazz Orchestra, which uses its formidable range of weapons for the first time to back a singer, Drenda Barnett. One presumes that anyone who can enlist a band of this caliber as a support group must have talent to spare, and it's a pleasure to report that that is indeed the case. Barnett, who has been honing her craft in Dallas for many years, is a first-rate singer, as pleasing to the ears on swingers ("Deed I Do," "This Could Be the Start of Something") as she is on ballads ("You Go to My Head," "In the Wee Small Hours," "Midnight Sun").
Barnett is showcased on eight of the album's thirteen numbers. Besides those already noted, they include Michael Franks' playful "Popsicle Toes," the standard "Too Close for Comfort" and the Martha Raye show-stopper, "Mr. Paganini." She's charming on every one, singing with clarity, emotion, a solid sense of time and, best of all, her own style. If there's a flaw, it lies in her tendency on ballads to cleave single vowels into three or four. At times, the ghost of Anita O'Day seems to arise, but such appearances are brief and not at all dispiriting.