The big band has an essential role to play in jazz, yet good big bands are hard to find in the USA. The Basie and Ellington bands still persist in one form or another but their heyday is past. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis' great outfit saw its demise several years ago and now Toshiko and Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin have announced that they are retiring their orchestra after many wonderful years. So when a new recording comes along from a master of big-band leading and arranging it deserves our attention.
Gerald Wilson is not a household name among jazz fans but he commands a great deal of respect among jazz musicians. Now in his 85th year, Wilson has been active in music since 1937, a bandleader since 1944, a recording artists since 1945. Space does not allow a complete listing of the musicians he has worked with but they include Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Eric Dolphy. He has been an arranger for countless recordings, has written movie scores and has continued to study and grow as a trumpeter and composer for over fifty yeas and to work in jazz education at Cal. State University.
Although associated with the Los Angeles jazz scene, for this date Wilson put together an orchestra from the best players in New York to perform a series of jazz classics and originals. The writing is deft, with Wilson's characteristically rich voicings, the playing is tight and the soloists are top quality: Kenny Barron, Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Jimmy Heath among others.
If jazz still has a mainstream this is it. There is nothing cutting-edge or avant-garde here. It is jazz as American classical music in the truest sense, and the key to performing any classical music successfully is to create freshness through imagination and passion. Wilson et. al. do just that. If you enjoy big-band jazz do not miss this one.