By Hrayr Attarian
Derrick Gardner Still I Rise
Trumpets: Derrick Gardner, Bijon Watson, Jeff Johnson, Curtis Taylor, Andrew Littleford
Trombones: Vincent Gardner, Joel Green, Anthony Bryson, Bill Green
Saxophones: Mark Gross, Greg Gatien, Rob Dixon, Tristan Martinuson, Ken Gold
Piano: Zen Zadravec
Bass: Luke Sellick
Guitar: Kasey Kurtz
Drums: Curtis Nowosad
Trumpeter Derrick Gardner fronts the Winnipeg-based Big dig! Band on the thrilling Still I Rise, his debut with a large ensemble. His previous recordings with his group The Jazz Prophets are primarily with sextets and octets, yet Gardner transitions seamlessly to the orchestral arena as a leader as well as a composer and an arranger. The superb musicians that make up this intriguing combo are from various North American cities, yet their surprisingly seamless camaraderie, as well as their superlative skills, make for an exciting and dynamic album.
The title track, dedicated to poet Maya Angelou, is soulful and brightly hued with a restlessly percolating rhythmic framework. Gardner follows the intro with mellifluous and celebratory improvisation. Its burnished tones bounce off the different sections with elegance and agility. Derrick’s brother, trombonist Vincent Gardner, follows a meandering path with a growl as his horn glides along the main theme, embellishing it with captivating spontaneity. Drummer Curtis Nowosad’s stimulating polyrhythmic solo brings back the vibrant head.
One of the most personal pieces on the disc is “Blues à la Burgess,” dedicated to Gardner’s father who also played the trumpet. Gardner drenches his lyrical performance with indigo hues as he navigates the intricate composition with facility and nimbleness. The other horns buoy him with their collective high notes. Tenor saxophonist Tristan Martinuson takes center stage with expressive, wailing lines that brim with passion. Once again, Nowosad’s percussive prowess ushers in the impeccably crafted conclusion.
Three bonus tunes are available only as digital downloads. Of these, perhaps the most intriguing is the waltz “To Whom It May Concern.” The sashaying refrains of the melody feature Kasey Kurtz’s warm guitar. The song’s core, however, is bassist Luke Sellick’s eloquent, lithe extemporization that Nowosad and pianist Zen Zadravec subtly support. Sellick continues to provide a definite focal point around which others’ turns in the spotlight revolve. These include Joel Green’s contemplative trombone and Ken Gold’s muscular and melancholic baritone phrases.
Still I Rise occupies a unique niche in contemporary big band releases. It is neither lightweight retro-swing revivalism, nor is it highbrow or symphonic. In this it harks back to the sound of mid twentieth-century groups of pianist Count Basie and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Gardner, however, has his own singular sound and—although inspired by his predecessors—has created a brilliant work that reflects his own individuality and creative vision.