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Gerald Wilson 1918-2014

Gerald Wilson PortraitsThe news of Gerald Wilson’s death this week at the age of 96 reminds us of the sheer scale of his career: he wrote his first arrangement in 1939 (for Jimmie Lunceford) and was still making fine records with his own large ensemble well after the turn of the millennium. In between times he produced an enormous amount of worthwhile music, as is recounted in a good Los Angeles Times obituary by Don Heckman here. But three albums that he made with his own big band for Pacific Jazz in the early ’60s — You Better Believe It!, Moment of Truth and Portraits — have always been particularly precious to me, for the way they blend the influences of Duke Ellington and Gil Evans with a receptiveness to then-current developments in modal jazz and the avant-garde, and for the presence of a bunch of smoking soloists.

Wilson wrote music that swung hard, but he never disengaged his brain or his imagination — Portraits includes tracks dedicated to Aram Khachaturian, Ravi Shankar and Eric Dolphy — and he provided a stimulating framework for such hand-picked improvisers as the trumpeter Carmell Jones, the trombonist Lou Blackburn, the altoist Jimmy Woods and the tenorists Teddy Edwards and Harold Land.

Here’s a clip from the episode of Frankly Jazz, a Hollywood TV show sponsored by Pacific Jazz, that featured Wilson’s band. It shows them performing a snatch of “Blues for Yna Yna”, the hit tune from You Better Believe It! (on which it featured the organist Richard “Groove” Holmes), before going into Wilson’s storming arrangement of Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, from Moment of Truth. The leader picks up his trumpet to kick off a solo sequence that also features Buddy Collette on alto, Blackburn on trombone, Edwards on tenor and Jack Wilson on piano. The drummer is Mel Lewis, the bassist is Jimmy Bond and other recognisable faces include the altoist Joe Maini and the baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz.

If you want more, here’s Wilson’s original version of “Viva Tirado“, also from Moment of Truth, with Joe Pass on guitar and Carmell Jones on trumpet. It’s how one part of LA sounded in 1963. Still pretty hip, if you ask me.

* The photograph of Gerald Wilson is from the cover of Portrait and was taken by Woody Woodward.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Exceptional albums with exceptional line ups. A huge fan of Harold Land and Teddy Edwards. I also like Gerald Wilson’s work with the last edition of the Curtis Counce group, again with Land and Elmo Hope.

    I think he also arranged for Ray Charles in the 60s to tie in with one of your earlier posts.

    September 10, 2014
  2. thanks for these reflections Richard.
    I am on the foothills of jazz and had never heard of Gerald Wilson until 2005 when radio 3 broadcast a concert from London with him conducting the BBC big band – it sounded fantastic and wiped out my preconceptions of big band music. I later bought the In My Time CD which is a 2008 live record with some of of the same pieces. A CD release of the BBC recording would be very welcome.

    the BBC concert playlist is here:

    September 10, 2014
    • Thanks, Michael. Those foothills are a good place to be. So much to discover.

      September 10, 2014
  3. crocodilechuck #

    This is an excellent survey (by Wilson himself) of his music & career: NB Miles always liked his arrangements.

    September 11, 2014

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