Marshall Gilkes and the WDR Big Band team up on riveting new album, LifeSongs, due out January 26, 2024 (Alternate Side Records)
Alternate Side Records is thrilled to announce the January 26, 2024 release of LifeSongs, the latest album by renowned trombonist Marshall Gilkes and the heralded WDR Big Band. A rich musical journey inspired by life itself, LifeSongs is a crowning achievement for the twice-GRAMMY nominated artist, who is known internationally for his virtuosic command of the trombone, and widely recognized as one of the great big band composers of our era.
LifeSongs represents something of a musical homecoming for Marshall Gilkes. The lauded trombonist spent four memorable years in Cologne, making his mark within the ranks of the WDR Big Band’s brass section until his departure in late 2013. Just a month after his tenure ended, Gilkes and the WDR Big Band reunited for what would become the smashing, 2x GRAMMY nominated album Köln. His first large ensemble project as a leader, Köln formally introduced Gilkes as a multifaceted composer-arranger-conductor-soloist force to be reckoned with. In 2018, the two teamed up again for the critically acclaimed Always Forward, of which All About Jazz praised as “succeed[ing] on every level.” Now, the two entities come together once again for a third go with LifeSongs.
When composing the music that would make up his eighth album as a bandleader, Gilkes noticed a commonality across his compositions. “I realized that a lot of the themes for these pieces relate directly to life and what’s going on in the world these days,” Gilkes explains. Channeling these moments, both in his personal sphere and the greater whole, he crafted a breathtaking collection of material tied directly to these times.
“Fresh Start” is the album opener, and addresses the top of tabula rasa —or blank state — as it relates to existence after the pandemic, with boldness and brilliance. A driving straight-eighth number that Gilkes likens to a mini concerto, it proves to be the ideal entryway as it spotlights his virtuosic horn work and the outfit’s passionate embrace of his writing. Eyeing the same subject from another angle, the soulful “Back in the Groove” references the pace of life renewed, with a spotlight on the alto saxophonist Johan Hörlén and pianist Billy Test. “I just love the drive in Johan’s playing, and he has these great harmonic ideas so, in blowing over a vamp like he does here, he can really take things to different places and then get right back to where things need to go,” Gilkes shares. Equally enthusiastic about Test’s contributions, the leader praises his piano soloing and how it connects to a key influence. “Part of the inspiration for this tune comes from Brad Mehldau and the groove on his version of “50 Ways to Leave Your Love” from Day is Done. Billy shared that he used to transcribe a lot of Brad’s work. And he brought something really unique, but in that vein, to the table.”
Shifting focus to family, Gilkes revisits and revises the stunner “Cora’s Tune”. Written for his daughter, “Cora’s Tune” can be found on two of Gilkes’ previous albums including his 2020 trio recording Waiting to Continue, and with the trombone quartet he co-leads, Slide Monsters, on their 2021 release Travelers. Demonstrating fondness for the warm blend between clarinets and trombone, and providing a noted balance between tenderness and might, Gilkes breathes new wonders into the air while retaining the shape and structure of the original. “Template-wise it’s similar, with the exact same form as the trombone quartet version…but just completely different orchestration,” he shares.
Leaving that musical arena behind for a statement suffused with gravitas, a united front tackles a serious issue and delivers an affecting masterpiece in the form of “My Unanswered Prayer.” “That’s about gun violence, particularly in the U.S.,” Gilkes notes. Tired of the thoughts-and-prayers response accompanying each and every senseless shooting, he penned a poignant reply where brass builds with elegiac tones, a flute sings with solemnity and grace, he pours his own heart into his horn, and Test follows suit and gets inside the emotional core of the composition. The augmented harmonies prove haunting, which, as Gilkes mentions, fits the scary nature of the matter.
Reaching the midpoint of the program, the trombonist offers an alluring outlier with “All the Pretty Little Horses.” The first and only chart he’s ever written for vocals and large ensemble, its origin lies in slumber. “The Air Force Academy Band commissioned me to write that a few years back. They asked me to write a children’s tune in essence, so I thought, ‘What about this lullaby that I used to hear my mom singing to my kids all the time?’” A beautiful platform for guest vocalist Sabeth Pérez, who’s foregrounded alone and in a wordless pas de deux with Hörlén’s soprano, it proves to be a buoyant, spellbinding charmer.
Returning to the realm of instrumentals, the brass receives its due with three disparate gems. “Middle Ground,” which calls for a common meeting place, arrives first and features the trombones. “I wanted to do something different to really showcase the sound of this section, especially with the chorales,” he notes. “And then there’s a Latin portion and the basic tune as well.” Ludwig Nuss and Raphael Klemm solo first, and Gilkes trades with his old friend (and onetime Interlochen roommate) Andy Hunter in the spicier sector. An expansion of “Sin Filtro”—the brass-only bonus track from Cyclic Journey—gives Gilkes a chance to put his stunning slide into play over a Balkan-ized slant on a Spanish-tinged knockout. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine,” which appeared in a markedly different version on his 2005 debut Edenderry, serves as a vehicle for Andy Haderer’s gorgeous flugelhorn work. Nodding to his children on the charged “Sugar Rush,” Gilkes paints a portrait of candy-fueled youth and gives tenor saxophonist Paul Heller some space to shine. Winking to arranging icon Bob Brookmeyer via a dovetailing saxophone section, and presenting outstanding ensemble work throughout, it offers a reminder about the power at play in this fruitful collaboration while homing in, both literally and figuratively, on life’s sweet gifts.
Adding riches beyond that official conclusion, Gilkes crafts a coda for this digital edition of the album with two bonus tracks that look toward his Hudson Valley base and build on originals from Waiting to Continue. A hard-swinging “Taconic Turns,” mirroring the trombonist’s southbound route from his hometown to New York City, rides high and lives in the big band tradition. “There’s a sax soli in it and it’s a little slower than how I first recorded it, so the band is able to dig in a little bit more than we did on the trio rendition,” Gilkes explains. Featuring some magical muted trumpet work from Ruud Breuls and a strong showing from alto saxophonist Pascal Bartoszak, the performance contains no shortage of thrills.
Things come to a true end with “Longing for Home.” Providing ample room for bassist John Goldsby and tenor saxophonist Ben Fitzpatrick to stretch out, this arrangement opens on a brand new, fully-scored introduction before the theme takes hold with Brazilian-accented backing. “When I sat down to write this, I don’t know where it came from but I just started writing that introduction with the clarinets,” Gilkes notes. “It has its own flavor, but it takes some harmonies from the tune before it actually really goes into it.” Signaling saudade both in name and bearing, it’s a number that, aptly enough, reflects on the roots that support Marshall Gilkes and encourage him to thrive.
Derived from liner notes by Dan Bilawsky.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Marshall Gilkes has established himself as one of the world’s preeminent trombonists. A nonpareil artist at the forefront of brass playing, his virtuosic command of the instrument, marked by a warm and enveloping tone, Herculean chops, astounding flexibility and awe-inspiring range, place him in a league of his own.
With an incredible work ethic focused and shaped through his Juilliard training, Gilkes quickly became a force to be reckoned with, earning serious praise when he arrived on the scene near the dawn of the millennium. His debut leader date—2004’s Edenderry—was an instant head-turner, presenting ear-catching compositions showcasing dexterous slide work and an appreciation for high-level interplay. Released on the heels of his appearance as a finalist in the 2003 Thelonious Monk Institute International Trombone Competition, it served as a clear indicator of Gilkes’ emerging artistry. Broadening the scope of his imagination, he then looked toward the quintet format for 2008’s Lost Words and 2012’s Sound Stories.
Underscoring Gilkes’ many and varied strengths on trombone, each of those releases also highlighted his work as a composer. But it was a pair of albums with Germany’s WDR Big Band—an outgrowth of the trombonist’s four-year tenure with that ensemble (from 2010 to 2014)—that took things to the next level. 2015’s Köln, offering a 360-degree look at Gilkes as a writer, arranger, conductor and soloist, was a triumph of epic proportions, earning rave reviews and a pair of Grammy nominations. An equally impressive follow-up—2018’s Always Forward—served as a compelling companion piece, cementing his status as one of the great big band composers of the modern era.
With Gilkes’ two most recent outings—2020’s Waiting to Continue and 2022’s Cyclic Journey—he furthered his unique musical outlook while fulfilling long-held ambitions of two very different sorts: The former, recorded when studios first reopened shortly after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, finds him at the height of his powers, leading a piano-less trio; and the latter, uniting an all-star brass octet with a blue-chip jazz combo to present an original suite built to represent daily life in all its grounding glory, speaks to a boundless artistry.
Through those seven albums, Gilkes has carved out his place as a leader of note. And with his work as a first-call sideman, in parallel to those efforts, he’s demonstrated incomparable might and adaptability. Gilkes has made his mark performing and/or recording with bassist Carlos Henriquez, harpist Edmar Castañeda, the New York Philharmonic, the Brass Band of Battle Creek, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Slide Monsters, bassist Richard Bona, pianist Makoto Ozone and numerous other top-tier musicians and outfits. And through his work with the WDR Big Band and as a longtime member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Gilkes has played himself into the rich history of large ensemble music.
A marvel of musicality, sought after and highly respected in both the jazz and classical worlds, Gilkes has earned his rightful place in the upper echelon of both realms. Not surprisingly, his vast experience and genre-straddling skills have made him an in-demand educator, reflected by his current position on the faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music. In addition, he’s shared his knowledge and skills through master classes, clinics, guest appearances and teaching at other venerable institutions including the Banff Center, Berklee College of Music, University of North Texas, Manhattan School of Music, the Brubeck Institute, Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. An S. E. Shires Artist, Gilkes performs on his signature model trombone—an instrument as versatile as its inspiration.