By Michael Katz
Gerald Wilson took a near-capacity crowd at Catalina’s on a Tour De Jazz Thursday night. The 93 year old composer/arranger/leader, possessed of undiminished enthusiasm, spun musical and verbal tales that began with his days in the Jimmie Lunceford Band and included Basie and Ellington, with deft nods to Stravinsky, Puccini and Miles Davis, not to mention two more generations of his own family.
The opening number, “Blues For The Count,” mixed in tributes to Basie and Lunceford, starting with Brian O’Rourke’s bouncy piano intro and opening splashes by Randall Willis on alto sax and Jeff Kaye, the first of three trumpeters to solo during the evening. Anthony Wilson kept up the rhythm, Freddie Green-like, and the band featured a new wrinkle with violinist Yvette Devereaux. Amplifying a violinist to stand up to an 18 piece band is a challenge; while the first go around was a bit strident, Devereaux adapted as the show progressed, with some splendid work later in the evening.
Wilson’s 18 piece band has a rhythm backbone that features his son, Anthony, well-established on the national scene by now as guitarist for Diana Krall, and O’Rourke, for two decades his regular pianist. The dominant section of the band, though, is the saxophones, a Wilson trademark, blending harmonies over a six man group. Kamasi Washington was the lead voice on tenor with Carl Randall close behind; Willis and Mike Nelson split up the alto duties, with Nelson doubling on flute; and Louis Taylor and Terry Landry filled out the bottom on baritones.
Anthony Wilson took over the band’s direction for his composition, “Virgo,” written for his father’s 90th birthday. It began with a lovely intro by O’Rourke, backed by muted trumpets, then gave way to Wilson’s upbeat soloing. The sax front line took over from there, featuring dueling altoists Nelson and Willis.
Gerald Wilson’s latest album, Legacy (Mack Avenue), features several adaptations of classical works. “Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky” is based on “Firebird.” The performance had an intense, urban feel to it, reminiscent of some of the film scores of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Kamasi Washington provided the fire on tenor sax and Ron Barrows contributed a piercing trumpet solo.
Wilson then handed the baton over to the third generation of his family, grandson Eric Otis, whose paternal grandfather was R&B great Johnny Otis. Eric led his composition, “September Sky,” a soft-toned elegy that featured Mike Nelson on flute, as well as the third trumpet soloist Harry Kim.
Wilson, weaving stories from his days with Basie and Ellington, held forth for nearly two hours, only stepping aside the two aforementioned times. The breadth of his work is enormous. There was another classical piece, “Variations on a Theme by Puccini,” which featured violinist Devereaux, now comfortably adapted into the sound mix, as well as the two bari sax players, Taylor and Landry. There were a couple of standards, brought to life by Wilson’s arrangements. “Perdido,” by Ellington and Juan Tizol, was ushered in by O’Rourke and the sax section, with some rousing solos by Nelson and Carl Randall. The trombone section, led by Les Benedict, didn’t get a lot of soloing this evening, but provided stout section playing throughout. Then there was “Milestones,” another Wilson arrangement which turned the Miles Davis tune into a terrific big band piece, featuring some great give and take with tenors Washington and Randall, and Anthony Wilson breaking loose on guitar.
Wilson closed with “Viva Tirado,” which he wrote in 1962 and was turned into a top forty hit by El Chicano in 1970. For the Wilson band it remains a signature, blow-the-roof-off –the-joint finale. It started with the familiar theme, then Jeff Kaye delivered a trumpet burst and Kamasi Washington belted out another funky tenor solo. Anthony Wilson and Yvette Devereaux took over from there with a down and dirty string duel that had the audience howling. By the end, all the horns were standing, drummer Mel Lee was maintaining some type of order in the back, and the crowd was on their feet as well.
Gerald Wilson presided over it all, a living testament to the vibrancy of Jazz Past, Present and Future.
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