When considering Gerald Wilson’s Detroit, the orchestral suite he composed to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that city’s International Jazz Festival, it would be easy to get sidetracked by his unbelievably long career. After all, he’s been a vital part of the jazz scene for seven decades.
But the simple fact is that his composition, and its performance as presented on a new album coming out later this month on the Mack Avenue label, is as good as anything you’ll hear from any jazz composer around — young, old, or in between.
Although he eventually became a stalwart of the West Coast Jazz movement, the Mississippi-born Wilson did spend much of his childhood in Detroit, and that history led to the city’s decision to offer him a commission for the work. The complete suite was performed to an appreciative audience at the festival in early September, with the orchestra under the composer’s baton. The music on the album was actually recorded prior to that, under studio conditions but again with an outstanding group directed by Wilson. Filling the seats was a constantly morphing combination of some two dozen musicians; all seasoned pros but way too many to name.
The suite consists of eight movements, beginning with “Blues On Belle Isle,” which was one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the lush orchestral sound and evocative flute lead on the title tune, “Detroit,” and the spritely but romantic “Miss Gretchen,” which features an especially nice piano solo. My favorite track of all was probably also the most surprising. Titled “Before Motown,” it features a blazing Latin-flavored trumpet solo, and is meant as a salute to earlier generations of native North Americans.
Gerald Wilson is a multiple-Grammy nominee who has won numerous awards throughout his career, and it would be tempting to say that this work is his crowning achievement. That is, if he wasn’t still going strong and working on his next.
Highly recommended for jazz lovers of all ages.