One of the reasons I dig jazz is the freedom involved. Past all the customarily inane quarrels about what jazz is and isn’t lies a humble belief in following the music where it leads, even if it’s off the sheets of the composition at times.
With his new record Sound Stories, trombonist Marshall Gilkes walks the line between compositional organization and improvisational autonomy without missing a step. He’s accumulated a group of cunningly compatible players to go through his arrangements with an orchestral resolve and it works like a charm.
On Sound Stories, Gilkes plays with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Eric Doob.
For Gilkes, the compositions are all about the complete, unabridged story. He sets things up with comprehensive visions, placing musical declarations in all the right places to tell the tale he has envisioned for the respective pieces. Everything works in service of the music, even the improvisational channels, and Gilkes’ melody-making is all about supporting the sum of the numbers.
“I want each solo to support the written form,” says Gilkes. “The solos should build and set up the next part of the composition to cue it in.”
There are three two-part pieces (“Presence,” “Anxiety” and “Armstrong”) that make special use of the principle of totality. Each part, each solo, works in service of the entire song. Statements are made to be answered by other players, with the solos tucked in to complete the musical dialogue. Nobody is showing off or taking centre stage, although there is certainly some damn fine playing to be heard.
My favourite track on the record is “Slashes,” a neat and swinging composition that makes use of both short and long statements to deliver a lengthy, flexible jam. Gilkes’ improvisation and soloing stunningly ties in to what the other players are doing, building to a wide-ranging motif that really earns its title thanks to “slashes” of horn.
As an illustration of the line between the diligence of composition and the sovereignty of improvisation, Sound Stories is an exceptional recording. Gilkes and his band swing and create great music, whatever that’s being called this week, and that, in my estimation, is a hell of a thing.