Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets + 2 – Echoes Of Ethnicity (2009)

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Like Dave Holland, Derrick Gardner is following the axiom of “more is…” more. Allow me to explain…

One of the hottest jazz combos of the last decade has been the Dave Holland Quintet. Recently, Holland decided to shake things up a bit and expanded his quintet to a sextet. The result can be heard on last year’s fine Pass It On CD. On the other hand, Gardner’s Jazz Prophets was already a sextet, a very powerful unit that’s comprised of the leader Gardner on trumpet and flugelhorn, brother Vincent Gardner on trombone, Rob Dixon on tenor sax, Rick Roe on piano, Gerald Cannon on bass and Donald Edwards on drums. Last year’s A Ride To The Other Side was last year’s best straight-up hard-bop record, in my humble opinion.

But for the Prophets’ new album Echoes Of Ethnicity, the band becomes an octet with the addition of Jason Marshall on baritone sax and Brad Leali on alto sax. The augmented band now has a slightly altered name: Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets + 2. I didn’t previously know about Marshall, but that record Leali recorded with Claus Raible from last year, D.A.’ Time, was about as equally impressive as Gardner’s 2008 offering. Getting this criminally overlooked altoist on board is a real treat. As I found out later, Jason Marshall’s presence on baritone is a real plus, too.

Adding that alto and baritone was a strategic move by Gardner; as he explains, “it has the sounds of a big band but also has the looseness of a small group, so you get a really full sound.” It’s also been noted that such an octet is the smallest band configuration possible where every instrument in a typical big band is present. Thus, it’s clear that Gardner is trying to get the best of both worlds with this ensemble.

As in their prior record, Echoes gets off to a roaring start. “4Newk” is derivative of Miles Davis’ “Four” twice removed played with a brisk, slightly Latin overtone. Derrick wastes no time in jumping head first into a sizzler of a trumpet solo. Cannon’s nimble bass lines and Edwards’ mini-explosions keep things humming along at a high energy level.

“Afros & Cubans” expands the group to a nonet with the temporary addition of percussionist Kevin Kaiser on congas. The serpentine 6/8 Latin beat is matched by equally shifty ensemble passages.

Dixon came through big time in contribute some tight compositions on the last go around and he delivers again for Echoes. He wrote the hard swinging, wonderfully charted “We Jazz June”. “Crystal Stair” is better still, a demonstration of the beauty found in a simpler melody.

The Aretha Franklin hit “Natural Woman” is one of only two covers on this collection, and it does much to show the creative interpretive skills of Gardner. He had Edwards revamp the rhythm and arranged rich horn accents in the chorus that work around the solos instead of upstaging them. Roe’s sweet gospel-flavored solo is the standout, as is Derrick’s trumpet work that immediately follows. The other standard is Vernon Duke’s “Autumn In New York,” with which the leader builds an elegant ballad from the verse portion, and applies a smooth, ethereal trumpet that only serves to add to that elegance.

The album ends in a light-hearted fashion with Derrick’s “Miss’ippi Man,” keyed by a down home repeating figure stated by Marshall’s baritone. The relaxed feel is a bit deceptive, though, as the tempo regularly shifts between 6/4 and 4/4 time, and intricately interwoven horns.

With tight ensemble playing, smart arrangements, and uniformly solid compositions, Derrick Gardner and the Jazz Prophets once again produces a winner for those who like their jazz straight ahead and nothing cute; just something that connects at the gut level without making any compromises. That’s what Echoes Of Ethnicity does, and does so with some additional firepower.

Echoes Of Ethnicity, which comes to us courtesy of Owl Studios, hits the streets today.

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