July 20, 2020. Turns out Winnipeg, the capital and largest city of the Canadian province of Manitoba, is more than just a cold, forbidding outpost that once lost— and has since regained— its NHL franchise. It’s also a not-half-bad place for jazz.
So says trumpeter Derrick Gardner, the Count Basie Orchestra alum with a chair in jazz trumpet at the University of Manitob. He's assembled the Big dig! Band, an 18-piece jazz orchestra with uncommon origins on the Canadian Prairie.
Seven of the 18 musicians on their debut album, Still I Rise, have ties to Winnipeg’s surprisingly healthy jazz scene; the rest are a cherry-picking’s worth of some of the best jazz musicians in the hemisphere, most notably the bandleader’s brother, trombonist and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra mainstay, Vincent Gardner.
Musically, Still I Rise is a testament to Derrick Gardner’s prowess as a composer and arranger; atmospherically, the album is playful and nostalgic but, by turns, also mournful and politically earnest—this from an artist who views his music as “a kind of activism.”
“Push Come da Shove,” the album’s opener, might just as well describe the current cultural moment, though the title’s more coincidence than commentary in this case—Gardner’s just always liked the idiom.
The band comes charging out the gate with purpose, with a statement to make, and the featured mouthpiece is the trombone section, led by Gardner’s brother. Throughout the album, the 'bones are the dark matter holding this musical galaxy together, and, here, they inject necessary conflict into the tune’s main theme, their lines inspired by those played by McCoy Tyner’s left hand on A Love Supreme’s “Resolution.”
Like the Maya Angelou poem for which it’s named, “Still I Rise,” the second cut and title track, is righteously blustery and tireless and in your face. Both of the brothers Gardner take a turn out front, but it’s Curtis Nowosad’s drum solo from about the six-minute mark that builds the piece to its climax before the refreshing, if non-standard, ending.
“Blues à la Burgess,” is one Gardner wrote for his trumpet-playing father in honor of the elder Gardner’s uncanny ability to “find the blues in any and every tune he plays.”
His sons don’t really struggle in that area either. Listen for the stand of saxophones out front, producing a sound both stately and harmonically sophisticated. Tristan Martinuson’s tenor sax solo in the tune’s second half brings to mind the unapologetically bluesy quality of boss tenors like Gene Ammons and Jimmy Forrest and Coleman Hawkins. It’s a sound not as common today for younger players, and it’s a pleasure to listen to.
Martinuson brings the same old-school cool to the next cut, the penultimate “8 Ball, Side Pocket.” A contrafact of an old tune written by former Count Basie guitarist Freddie Green called “Corner Pocket,” this one’s quite clearly an homage to the Count; it evokes another place in time, and might be the best vacation experience around these days.
That is until you get to the closer, “Heavens to Murgatroyd,” which is less a vacation than a jarring awakening from suspended animation during intergalactic spaceflight.
Gardner’s laid a loop sound effects from his favorite childhood cartoons over the actual recording of the band playing his original composition—by the way, all seven of the tracks here are Gardner originals.
The result is what Gardner himself calls “a hodgepodge bouquet of chaos.”
It may be chaotic, but with a grueling and spectacular tenor saxophone solo from the impressive Rob Dixon cutting through the tune’s core before crossing streams with a soloing Gardner for a few nuclear moments, it’s also explosive.
It’s 2020, you were expecting a bouquet of roses?