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Gerald Wilson: New York, NY, September 30, 2011

Louis Heckheimer By

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Gerald Wilson, Anthony Wilson, Eric Otis and the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola,
New York, NY
September 30, 2011
There are jazz players who've had extended careers, and then there's Gerald Wilson. The veteran composer, arranger and big band leader might well be able to claim the longest major recording career in jazz. First recorded in 1939 as a member of Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra, Gerald Wilson celebrated the release of his most recent CD, Legacy (Mack Avenue, 2011), at the age of 93. He appeared, as ever, in fine form on September 30th at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, as part of the Generations in Jazz Festival. Featured alongside were family members—guitarists and talented composers in their own right—son Anthony Wilson and grandson Eric Otis. Although Wilson has fronted his own big bands since the 1940s, achieving his greatest renown in the 1960s on the west coast, this time the music was performed by the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra, directed by James Burton.
Wilson started his part of the program with "Blues for the Count," a composition he wrote for Count Basie at the dawn of the LP era. Always eloquent, as an introduction he recalled sitting down with Basie to learn how the Count wanted to expand beyond the confines of the three-minute 78 RPM record, which had been the format until then. The classic format that Basie conceived of, and asked for, was a medium-tempo blues which would give a solo to a member of each section before building to a climax. Decades later, the audience showed, in its applause, that the effort had been worthwhile. Next, Wilson showed the influence of his classical music studies on "Igor," reinterpreting Igor Stravinsky's "Berceuse," from the Firebird Suite (1910) as an up-tempo minor blues.
The senior Wilson then handed the stage to his son Anthony, a guitarist best known for his work with pianist/vocalist Diana Krall, but also a noted composer, who presented "Virgo," written in honor of his father's 90th birthday. Originally commissioned by the Hollywood Bowl and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, the piece debuted at a concert in LA, honoring Gerald Wilson and Hank Jones in their 90th birthday years. When writing for his father's orchestra, Wilson stated that he kept in mind the compositional principles learned from his dad: keep it simple, rhythmic, direct and swinging, and never forget to make it your own piece.

Grandson Eric Otis' "September Sky" followed, a song based on an earlier composition that he expanded for his grandfather's orchestra. The piece showed a strong capacity for orchestral color, as much in the mode of Gil Evans as of his grandfather—a tonal portrait of a peaceful autumn sky, changing through the afternoon and, at one point, interrupted by a passing storm.

The senior Wilson returned to lead to three more pieces. First, his classic "Blues for Yenya," followed by "Aram," a tribute to Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian which shifted back-and-forth between waltz and swing time. Wilson's roaring arrangement of "Milestones" ended the concert.

The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra performed admirably, swinging hard but also showing sensitivity when called for on restrained pieces. Each of the soloists did an excellent job, but trumpeter Riley Mulkerkar and alto saxophonist/flautist Jordan Pettay stood out.

Watching three generations of talent weaving and interacting together made for a memorable evening—touching and joyful, at times, and always captivating. As a jazz composer and orchestra leader, Gerald Wilson showed that reaching the age of 93 does not make you a relic; it's possible to be as contemporary as those generations younger. Clearly he lives by the philosophy that there's no reason to stop setting records. Or making them.

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