Trumpeter Derrick Gardner
, a Chicagoan who has performed around the world with a who's who of jazz luminaries from Count Basie
, Dizzy Gillespie
and Frank Foster
to Nancy Wilson
, Tony Bennett
and Harry Connick Jr., to name only a few, traveled to Winnipeg, Canada, to assemble and record his Big Dig! Band, several sizes removed from Gardner's sextet, The Jazz Prophets, a working group since it was formed in New York City in 1991. Gardner not only shines as trumpet soloist on five of the splendid album's seven numbers, he wrote and arranged all of them, giving the band ample red meat on which to chew.
Although Gardner's music isn't basically thematic, he writes with people, places and events in mind, dedicating "Still I Rise" to the poet, actor and civil rights activist Maya Angelou (from one of whose poems the name was taken), the graceful "Melody for Trayvon" to Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was senselessly murdered in Florida in 2012, and "Blues a la Burgess" to his father, Burgess Gardner, who like Derrick was a jazz trumpeter. "Soulful Brother Gelispie" isn't a misprint; it's a salute not to Dizzy but to Randy Gelispie, depicted by Gardner as "one of the unsung heroes of jazz drumming." The groovy "8 Ball Side Pocket," a contrafact of guitarist Freddie Green
's well-known "Corner Pocket," pays homage to a popular pastime, while the offbeat "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" revisits a waggish cartoon expression from Gardner's childhood. Even when cruising into relatively uncharted waters, Gardner's compositions and arrangements are for the most part firmly anchored in established jazz custom and framework.
Gardner tests the band from the outset on "Push Come da Shove," a formidable C-minor blues on which he solos with alto Mark Gross
and drummer Curtis Nowosad
while the trombone section dazzles. "Still I Rise" presents a more traditional big-band demeanor, as does the bustling "Soulful Brother Gelispie" (sharp solos courtesy of Nowosad, guitarist Kasey Kurtz
and Gross on soprano sax). "Trayvon," the album's lone ballad, finds Gardner on muted trumpet, Gross back on alto to undergird persuasive statements by trumpeter Curtis Taylor
, tenor Rob Dixon
and brother Vincent Gardner
on trombone. "Blues a la Burgess" and "8 Ball" are old-school big-band swingers, while "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" simply must be heard, as it defies any plausible description (hint: it includes bizarre input from one "DJ Stop"). Setting "Murgatroyd!" (much of which is congenial) aside, it is to Gardner's credit that he has enlisted a squadron of accomplished sidemen from Canada and the States, and that they embrace within their ranks such masterful soloists as Gross, Nowosad, Kurtz, Taylor, Dixon, Vincent Gardner, pianist Zen Zadravec
and tenor Tristan Martinuson
, not to mention the leader himself.
In other words, it isn't hard to dig! this band, which thrives on Gardner's generally sunlit and likeable charts as it implants a smile on the listener's face. As a result, Still I Rise
has risen to the crest of recent big-band enterprises and is undoubtedly admiring the view.
Push Come da Shove; Still I Rise; Soulful Brother Gelispie; Melody for Trayvon; Blues a la Burgess; 8 Ball, Side Pocket;
Heavens to Murgatroyd!