Marshall Gilkes is a trombonist of monster chops and great taste whenever he puts the brass to his lips in any performance. He's seen sitting in the trombone section of the Maria Schneider
Orchestra in recent years, and has associations with other big bands, either subbing in, or as a member of the WDR Big Band in Germany
for a time earlier this decade.
Gilkes also has extensive classical training (a few years ago he nearly landed the gig as associate principal trombone with the New York Philharmonic) and his well-rounded skills flow into both composition and arranging.
The latter skills are on grand display in his latest recording, Köln
(Alternate Side Records), released in February. It's recorded with the WDR band, just after he left the organization. The album is a strong example of Gilkes wide-ranging skills and the way he can take advantage of the many voices and colors within a large ensemble, while still swinging. The charts draw on various moods and his creations are carried out with both precision and, from the soloists, emotion.
"This project was actually one of the highlights of my career so far," Gilkes says. "Being able to write for a band of that caliber. I don't know if a lot of people [in the U.S.] know the caliber of that band. It's an incredible band. Really strong. For me to be able to stand in front of that group and hear my writing back and perform it and record it. It was a pretty amazing experience for me."
Gilkes, who is from a musical family, was a member of WDR from 2010 through 2013. He would occasionally get permission to leave the band at times, in order to bring things he had written out to play them with university bands or other professional groups. It was then proposed that WDR get involved playing some of them.
"It was probably in September in 2013, before I had left the band. We recorded a bunch of stuff and rehearsed it for three days. The second day, they knew I was going to leave the band. So they asked me to come back in January (2014) and bring some more charts to record. We did a concert as well. They turned into a kind of farewell concert," he says.
Gilkes arranged all but two of the charts with specific voices of WDR in mind. The only standard is "My Shining Hour." "Edenderry" is an original ballad that is the title cut of an earlier Gilkes recording. The others are compositions he wrote over time. The arrangements take into account his knowledge of the band and which soloists would be strongest on which charts. The recording takes different journeys through the ten selections, bolting out of the gate with "Shining Hour" and ending with the majestic "Downtime." Gilkes sparkling horn only solos on a few numbers, but a couple compositions are also aided by the terrific trumpeter Michael Rodriguez
, who performed as a special guest.
The tightness of the band shouldn't be surprising, considering the nature of the WDR organization. Gilkes calls it "kind of its own animal." As a band member, "I had a lifetime contract. That's what they call it. It's an unlimited contract. I don't know anywhere else where that exists in jazz. It took me a while to get used to that. It's a different mentality than I was used to in New York. In New York, people spend tons of their own money to record for two days in the studio. In Germany, they have all these things at their disposal. The band. The engineers on staff. A beautiful studio. Somebody comes to tune the piano every day. You get used to it and it's part of the job there. That's what the culture is... It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. Parts are hard to explain. A lot of musicians, when I tell them about it here in the States they don't believe me. They think it's not possible."
The band brings in many guests to perform, many of them Americans as iconic as Ron Carter
. And swing has been paramount with the group, especially considering the drummers WDR has utilized. "With WDR, Mel Lewis
used to be over there as a guest drummer all the time. Dennis Mackrel
used to play all the time as a drummer. They didn't used to have a full-time drummer. It was years later they did. You still see a lot of equipment with, like, Peter Erskine
's name on some drums. While I was there, Peter Erskine came, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez
, Dave Weckl
. Some of the greatest drummers around. Jeff Hamilton
used to play a lot with the band. WDR definitely has a real swing, big band tradition."
"There's a lot of American background in the tradition of the WDR band. Also, the band is very multinational. When I was there, there were four Americans in it. A lot of the main conductors have been American, as well. A lot of the guest artists are American," he says.