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Marshall Gilkes: Relishing Big Band Success

R.J. DeLuke By

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I enjoy the process of figuring out different sounds that you heard, and you didn't really know what they were —Marshall Gilkes
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.

Because of such a strong American influence, Gilkes isn't sure if WDR is a great barometer of the state of jazz in Europe. "But in Köln the jazz scene is pretty incredible. I was blown away... The level of musicianship is high in young players. Similar to New York, there's a lot of original music being played. I didn't find that many guys playing swing. Also kids coming out of the music conservatory in Koln, they are really strong musicians all around. Their reading and overall musicianship is really high."

Gilkes has already played some of the music of Köln with college bands in the U.S., and is doing more of that this year, both in America and Europe. "I've actually played some of it with Army Blues [part of the U.S Army band program]. A lot of universities have contacted me wanting to play this stuff. Last summer I put together a big band and we played a bunch of these charts at St. Peter's Church in New York. It's hard to organize a big band in New York. I have a lot of respect for people that do it on a regular basis."

Notes Gilkes, "I don't just do jazz trombone. I'm writing a lot now. I'm doing some teaching. A lot of master classes. I'm traveling to universities and playing my music and doing concerts at schools. A whole bunch of different things... I go through phases where I'm not as busy. But I kind of like that. When you're writing, especially for large ensembles, it's really time consuming. Some people can sit on a plane with their computers and compose. I'm not one of those people. I love flying on a plane. But one of the things I like about it is doing nothing. Nobody can contact me for a few hours. In terms of writing, I like to be able to get into a groove and be really comfortable where I'm doing it."

He enjoys writing for both large and small ensembles for different reasons. "My last two small group records started to trend toward thru-composed music with multiple movements. Sometimes I was trying to desire to have more voices to write with," he says. "Lately, I love writing for big bands. Explore doubles and explore sounds. Experiment. Doubles like flutes and clarinets, and saxophones. I play a lot of classical music too. I grew up playing that stuff."

He wrote a concerto for trombone and wind ensemble at the request of people in Spain. "That's really fun. Trying to write for so many colors and voices. It's also a challenge. It's like a never-ending learning process... I enjoy the process of figuring out different sounds that you heard, and you didn't really know what they were. You figure them out and put them down on paper. Figure a way to write it."

For Gilkes, writing usually involves sitting at the piano. "Sometimes I sit there and improvise until I find something I really like. Then I explore that and elaborate on it with different harmonies. I'll do that, then maybe come back the next day and try too remember it. And if I remember it, then I feel like it's a good sign it's going to be something good. A melody that I can remember the next day. That's a good sign. Then I take that and keep on going with it... I also like a lot of shape in the writing. I don't like things to sound flat line. I try to be conscious of ups and downs in the writing."

In addition to working with larger ensembles, Gilkes plays in a trio with harpist Edmar Castaneda and does other small-group gigs around New York, including bands he gather together on his own.

It's pretty much always been trombone for Gilkes, whose father also played trombone and euphonium. His father played in the Armed Services, so it wasn't uncommon for the family to move around in Gilkes' formative years. He was playing piano at the age of 6 and his father had actually stopped playing trombone and moved into the duties of leading and conducting U.S. Air Force bands.

"But he still had the trombone. I found it as a kid rummaging through their closet or something. I tried to play it. He took the time to show me. I didn't know how to take proper care of it. I think I put some big dents in it," he recalls. "I just learned this recently, but he had to take the horn to his office and leave it there to protect it. In fifth grade, they started handing out instruments to see what fits you best. I had already played a little bit of trombone, so I got handed the trombone and stuck with it ever since."

But as a senior year of high school at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Gilkes was around other music students who were digging jazz. "There was a jazz history class where we were exposed to all kinds of things. Music I hadn't heard before." His family moved to Colorado where his father conducted bands at the Air Force Academy. Among them was a big band called the Falconaires. "So when I would go to his concerts, they would often play. There were some really great players in it. They were the first guys I was hearing and checking out. Then I started hearing other things. I started checking out more small group stuff. I think I was at a Wal-Mart or something. They had all these old jazz recordings like Louis Armstrong. Dizzy Gillespie. I picked up some of those and they led to other recordings that I picked up."
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