Derrick Gardner has made a distinguished name for himself over the decades as one of the finest trumpeters in North America, playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Connick Jr, George Benson and the Count Basie Orchestra just to name a few. In 2011, he relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba where he accepted a professorial position in the University of Manitoba Jazz Faculty, building up the next generation of horn players and making himself an unforgettable fixture of local hangs and shows. Now, following up his prior original work with the Jazz Prophets, Derrick has released Still I Rise, a big band project that, being the bandleader sees his years of jazz orchestra experience reach their ultimate manifestation, and shows the fruits of his last 9 years of labour with the featuring of numerous U of M Jazz alumni on the record.
If there’s any running theme in Still I Rise that is often brought up in description of various genres of music, it’s that in the absence of words, the music communicates the message loud and clear. There’s no second guessing about the kind of energy the hectic, swinging “Push Come Da Shove” channels; it’s rush hour, it’s New York City after dark, it’s MOVE, get out the way. Likewise, the Maya Angelou-dedicated title track conveys several moments of collective brass power that blare out much like a growing rise to the sky from the sidewalk, while “Melody For Trayvon”, an ode to Trayvon Martin takes on a more reflective, somber tone. In between there is the bopping “Soulful Brother Gelispie”, featuring tasteful solos from guitarist Kasey Kurtz and alto saxophonist Mark Gross; similar dynamics can be found in the straight-ahead swinger “Blues À La Burgess” with Gardner and tenor saxophonist Tristan Martinuson going blow for blow so to speak.
Other moments fall solidly in the big band form that Still I Rise prefaces itself on, “To Whom It May Concern” being one with Winnipeg-New York expat Luke Sellick getting his moment on the bass alongside trombonist Joel Green and baritone saxophonist Ken Gold. Fellow (literal) traveller Curtis Nowosad gets one of many captivating drum breaks on this track as well, and flawlessly executes in holding down the fort everywhere else. There certainly is a variety on the record that requires quick feet (and hands): “One Thing Lead To Another” switches gears to a slow bossa groove and the horn and woodwind section (Greg Gatien, Anthony Bryson, Andrew Littleford) delivers, while “8 Ball, Side Pocket” is a cut made for a lounge singer that gets handled by alto sax (Martinuson) and piano (Zen Zadravec).
The slow groover “DAAAYUUUM” starts off deceptively mellow with the sliding notes in the head emulating the expression itself, evolving into a world-class horn show highlighted by Bijon Watson’s high screeches. Rounding out the album is the experimental “Heavens To Murgatroyd”, an amalgamation of free-flowing jazz chaos, record scratches and Snagglepuss samples. Sure, the practice of melding jazz and hip-hop goes back eons, but did DJ Premier, 9th Wonder or even Robert Glasper think to throw ol’ Snagg onto their songs? Perhaps somewhere down the road. In the meanwhile, Still I Rise stands as a great jazz record rooted in tradition with enough contemporary flavour for the modern age. Derrick Gardner’s credentials become all the more solidified with this record, and those of his understudies, some of which have graduated to the big leagues in New York have been undoubtedly boosted here too. It’ll be a pleasure to see what comes next.