Derrick Gardner Big dig! Band
Still I Rise
This is the debut project for trumpeter, composer, and arranger Derrick Gardner. His Big dig! Band is a classic jazz orchestra – spectacular saxophone, trombone, and trumpet sections, studded with world-class musicians and anchored by a rock-solid rhythm section. For Still I Rise, Gardner has gathered musicians from all over North America, (see below) and together their depth of experience delivers this seven-track (ten digitally) collection of originals with dazzling energy, skill and sophistication. We say North America because this is a Canadian project with Derrick now residing in Canada as you’ll learn below.
Derrick—an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra and an heir apparent to Frank Foster—is joined by his brother Vincent Gardner on trombone, alongside 16 other musicians listed below. First conceived in 2014 with co-leader Steve Kirby, the Big dig! Band takes its name—and its retro black-and-white aesthetic—from dig! magazine, a bi-monthly publication designed by John Funk which thrived under Steve’s care for over a dozen years.
The senior members of the Big dig! Band have deep connections to some of the most important jazz orchestras in history. Derrick’s brother, Vincent Gardner has played with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre and Count Basie Orchestras, and is the artistic director of the Jazz Houston Orchestra. Mark Gross played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra while Bijon Watson has worked with the Gerald Wilson and Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestras. Rob Dixon has played with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Illinois Jacquet Big Band. These musicians, along with Zen Zadravec, Curtis Taylor, and others, have chalked up credits with a veritable who’s who in jazz, from the Marsalis brothers and Dianna Krall to Gregory Porter, Nicholas Payton, James Carter and Benny Golson.
Since his arrival in Winnipeg in 2011, Derrick has held the Babs Asper Chair in Jazz Trumpet at the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba, and has instilled a love for the art form in countless students. Several of the members of the Big dig! Band—Luke Sellick, Curtis Nowosad, Tristan Martinuson, Anthony Bryson, and Kasey Kurtz—are alums of the Jazz Studies program, and are establishing themselves in New York and elsewhere. Manitoba artists Greg Gatien, Ken Gold, Jeff Johnson, Andrew Littleford, Joel Green, and Bill Green, all members of the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, round out the band.
Still I Rise not only showcases Derrick Gardner’s skill as a trumpeter, but also as a composer and arranger. Featuring blues tunes rhythmic burners to languid ballads, Still I Rise displays Gardner’s ability as a bandleader to open spaces for not only his star players but his trailblazing youngsters to take center stage with inspired soloing.
As we proceed with these brief descriptions, we are indebted to Charlene Diehl, Associate Editor of dig! Magazine for her liner notes. The album opens with “Push Come da Shove,” a C-minor blues with an extended form laid over a rhythmic pedal point. The arrangement features a standout trombone section inspired by the left hand of legendary pianist McCoy Tyner as recorded on Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. Soloists: Derrick Gardner (trumpet), Mark Gross (alto sax), Curtis Nowosad (drums).
The title track is dedicated to African-American poet, singer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou describing the plight and resilience of African-Americans with solos from Derrick, brother Vincent and Nowosad. “Soulful Brother Gelispie” is dedicated to drummer Randy Gelispie, one of the unsung heroes of jazz drumming who once played with the Dizzy of a similar surname. Soloists are the drummer again with Kasey Kurtz on the bluesy guitar and Gross on soprano this time. “Melody for Trayvon” is dedicated to the African American teen Trayvon Martin, whose senseless 2012 slaying initiated a firestorm of riots and protests over gun violence. “As a composer and a student of human history, I see my music as a kind of activism. I’m invoking sadness, solemnity, and anger in the minor tonality and the weight of the orchestration—I want to create an empathic response that will move us toward eliminating this kind of sanctioned brutality,” says Gardner. Obviously, these were laid down before the brutal killing of George Floyd, an event which may have led Gardner to even more compositions of this type. Soloists: Derrick Gardner (muted trumpet), Curtis Taylor (trumpet), Mark Gross (alto sax), Rob Dixon (tenor sax), Vincent Gardner (trombone)
“Blues à la Burgess” is dedicated to the composer’s father Burgess Gardner, an accomplished jazz trumpeter and Derrick’s biggest influence. The tune is based on a phrase taken from one of Burgess’s solos. Here on solos we have Derrick (trumpet), Tristan Martinuson (tenor sax), and Curtis Nowosad (drums). “8 Ball, Side Pocket,” is a contrafact based on “Corner Pocket” by the great guitarist Freddie Green, featuring Martinuson (tenor sax), and Zen Zadravec (piano). The closer, “Heavens to Murgatroyd!,” which takes its humorous title from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of Derrick’s childhood. The whole tune is a hodgepodge bouquet of chaos— it’s crazy! Soloists: Derrick Gardner and Vincent with Rob Dixon (tenor), Curtis Nowosad (drums), and DJ Stop (DJ).
On the digital release of Still I Rise, fans are treated to three extra tracks: “To Whom it May Concern”, “One Thing Led to Another” and “DAAAYUUUM”. “To Whom it May Concern” was composed as a jazz waltz with a bass feature – reminiscent of Ellington’s “Jack the Bear” and Oscar Pettiford’s “Tricotism.” Soloists: Luke Sellick (bass), Joel Green (trombone), Ken Gold (baritone saxophone), and Curtis Nowosad (Drums) – “One Thing Led to Another” is a slow bossa nova in the style of Antonio Carlos Jobim with spots from Greg Gatien (alto sax), Anthony Bryson (trombone), Andrew Littleford (flugelhorn), and Luke Sellick (bass) Featuring an illuminating horn section, the compositional foundation of “DAAAYUUUM” lies in a blues melody that runs through the whole tune with Derrick Gardner (trumpet), Bijon Watson (trumpet), Jeff Johnson (trumpet), Curtis Taylor (trumpet), Andrew Littleford (trumpet), and Mark Gross (alto sax) leading the way. It appears that all member except bass trombonist Bill Green got at least one solo opportunity. For more information on this release, please by all means visit www.StillIRiseAlbum.com
This writer’s reaction to Derrick’s fiery impassioned trumpet soloing as well as the high energy level of all players evoked memories of mid-‘70s albums from Hannibal Marvin Peterson, Charles Sullivan and especially Charles Tolliver’s coincidentally named Impact (the name of the label for this release). Tolliver too had 18 pieces and even a few more with such reputable players as trumpeter Jon Faddis, altoist Charles McPherson and James Spauling and tenorists George Coleman and Harold Vick. To put Gardner’s debut in that same conversation is a testament to the strength of this recording sleek – powerful and swinging with the right balance of political and musical.
Composer • Arranger • Conductor
First alto and soprano: Mark Gross (New York, NY)
Second alto: Greg Gatien (Brandon, MB)
First tenor: Rob Dixon (Indianapolis, IN)
Second tenor: Tristan Martinuson (Winnipeg, MB)
Baritone: Ken Gold (Winnipeg, MB)
First trumpet: Bijon Watson (Boston, MA)
Second trumpet: Jeff Johnson (Winnipeg, MB)
Third trumpet: Curtis Taylor (San Diego, CA)
Fourth trumpet: Andrew Littleford (Winnipeg, MB)
Solo trumpet: Derrick Gardner (Winnipeg, MB)
First trombone: Vincent Gardner (Houston, TX)
Second trombone: Joel Green (Winnipeg, MB)
Third trombone: Anthony Bryson (Dayton, OH)
Bass trombone: Bill Green (Winnipeg, MB)
Piano: Zen Zadravec (Detroit, MI)
Bass: Luke Sellick (New York, NY)
Guitar: Kasey Kurtz (Winnipeg, MB)
Drums: Curtis Nowosad (New York, NY)
- Jim Hynes