Simply considering the range of music that Marshall Gilkes has played over the course of his career, it would be easy to assume that the trombonist/composer is a musical chameleon, able to alter his sound to fit into whatever situation he finds himself. After all, it seems unlikely that an individual sound would be able to express itself in such diverse contexts as the lush impressionism of the Maria Schneider Orchestra; the exotic chamber jazz of Colombian harpist Edmar Castañeda’s trio; or the fiery combustion of New York’s thriving Latin music scene.
But listen to the four albums that Gilkes has released under his own name – in particular his latest, a stunning set of compositions for the WDR Big Band named for its home base, Köln – and it immediately becomes clear how the versatile trombonist can integrate myriad influences into a singular and distinctive voice. Gilkes combines the spontaneous invention of jazz with the elegant architecture of classical composition; straightahead swing with adventurous modernism; virtuosic technique with passionate emotion. It’s a rare combination that has made Gilkes an in-demand performer, composer, sideman, and clinician since his arrival in New York City in the late 1990s.
They’ve also garnered him accolades from critics, audiences, and peers alike. In 2003 Gilkes was a finalist in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and has been voted a Rising Star on multiple occasions in DownBeat Magazine’s esteemed Critics Poll. Bill Milkowski of JazzTimes has called Gilkes “compelling, harmonically intriguing and ferociously swinging,” while bandleader Maria Schneider refers to him as “one of those musicians who continually just drops my jaw and leaves me shaking my head in disbelief.”
While his musical career has taken him to stages around the world, including four years in Cologne (Köln), Germany, as a member of the WDR Big Band, Gilkes became familiar with travel long before a trombone ever touched his lips. Gilkes’ father was a trombonist and euphonium player and later conductor in the Air Force, which led the family from Washington D.C. – Gilkes was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland – to New Hampshire, New Jersey, Alabama, Illinois, and Colorado.
It was his father’s influence that led Gilkes to pick up the trombone – apparently much earlier than he should have. Members of his father’s Air Force band recall their conductor, who by that time had decisively traded his trombone for the baton, suddenly keeping his instrument in his office. It seems his young son insisted on trying it out for himself, and was doing more harm than good.