Last Swingman


Gerald Wilson, who turned 85 on September 4, is the only major figure of the Swing Era still working. He joined Jimmie Lunceford on trumpet in 1939, and soon made his mark writing two of the most influential works of the era, “Hi Spook” and “Yard Dog Mazurka.” Like Artie Shaw, the one other swing titan still breathing, he soon put away his instrument. Unlike Shaw, who left music to write books, Wilson found his forte as a bandleader, composer, and arranger. You probably wouldn’t guess the duration of his career or the age of his music from New York New Sound (Mack Avenue), an exultant big band retrospective. Play it loud—that’s an order.

Wilson has written so much music as the leader of his all-star West Coast orchestras, little of which has creased New York’s consciousness, that he could devote a second lifetime to updates. Eight of the 10 selections originated in the ’60s, five (including “Viva Tirado,” which made the charts in 1970 in an El Chicano cover) on 1962’s Moment of Truth. Making a rare trip east—his last concerts here were in 1988 and 1963—he recruited a dream band: Kenny Barron, who triggers “Milestones” with a bracing whoosh of a solo; Clark Terry, who duets with himself for nine choruses on “Blues for the Count”; Frank Wess, who plays with exceptional finesse on “Blues for Yna Yna”; Jon Faddis, whose biting lead trumpet caps every peak; plus Jimmy Heath, Jesse Davis, Benny Powell, and the leader’s son, Anthony Wilson, who betters Joe Pass on a revamped “Nancy Jo,” and many other notables, not least two easily distinguishable drummers. Lewis Nash swings with the panache of Mel Lewis while producer Stix Hooper prefers a flat, funky sound. The only extended work is a 15-minute reduction of 1997’s Theme From Monterey that reprises two themes and offers a written variation on each.

Wilson will offer his third New York concert in 40 years at Birdland on October 27. Reserve now.