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NYSB 132nd Annual Festival w/ Wycliffe Gordon Report

“If there’s a Mount Rushmore of brass musicians in the United States, Wycliffe Gordon belongs on that mountain” Derek Lance

With a bio that hardly fits onto a program, Wycliffe Gordon really needs no introduction. Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra alumnus and widely known to brass fans from his time as soloist with Brass Band of Battle Creek he was the perfect guest to join the NYSB for their 132nd festival. As with previous annual festivals clever programming and guests bring in lots of different audience members who arrive to hear the soloist and leave with a new-found appreciation for the brass band medium. Westside Presbyterian in Ridgewood was the beautiful venue and a balmy spring day made the occasion fitting for a light and varied program from band and soloist alike.

The opening number from the band was a new composition by Simon Morton based on the harvest song We Gather Together. “To Ask the Lord’s Blessing” starts with a huge chord and battery from the timps followed by brooding trombone chords before bringing the tune into the major with the horns. Finishing with a similar battery as the opening, Simon’s compositional voice is one to watch out for.

Before the audience could draw breath, this was followed by Les Condon’s “The Call of the Righteous”. Some interesting programming here but the placement of old and new compositions sat well, especially after a flawless cornet introduction which is not always a given even at this level. The various solos were handled with ease on this well-known classic with a special nod to Matt Hodgson on Solo Horn. The last few sections were taken at a brisk pace with all the machinery of the band working well together.

The opening segment was finished with Marcus Venable’s “All Powerful” which on its own is a great opener. Using the well-known tune of Nicaea, he gives the band a full work out in this work which the audience seemed to enjoy.

With the band and audience fully warmed up it was time to enjoy some extra special trombone playing. Wycliffe joined the band in a Tommy Dorsey standard “Trombonology” (arr. Mark Freeh) which is a true test of any trombonist’s nerve. Wycliffe breezed through this chart with supreme ease and this is one of the main characteristics of his playing- No matter what crazy sounds and technique you encounter during his solos, it all seems so easy and natural to him.

Next up was the Bill Broughton ballad “Let the Beauty of Jesus” which was the first example of his sublime melodic playing. There were no fireworks in this number, but he let the arrangement sing for itself and the band accompaniment was equally sympathetic.

To finish his first segment the band provided a more robust accompaniment in Wycliffe’s own arrangement of “St Louis Blues” which is an all singing all dancing mix of jazz styles including samba, swing and good old fashioned New Orleans second line! Trading solos with Wycliffe was Robert Venables, a recent SA employee as a DMD in Southern New England. Bob has guested many times with the band and tonight wowed the audience with some top-class improvisation before Wycliffe took the microphone to croon a few verses before rounding the tune out with some phenomenal solo breaks.

 

The whole evening was skillfully navigated by the NYSB executive officer Lt. Colonel James Labossiere whose devotional followed the beautiful “He Watches” by Joel Collier, a simple but moving treatment of His eye is on the sparrow. Not only did this set the perfect mood it gave the band a chance to show the softer side of their playing. Highlighting the fact it was Palm Sunday the next day the Colonel urged the audience to pause, ponder and reflect on the main event of Easter, Jesus’ sacrifice and glorious resurrection.

The first half finished with another new composition, this time from the pen of Kenneth Downie. “God is my Shelter” marries the tunes of Rock of Ages, Will your Anchor Hold and He Hideth my Soul to give the army another work of theological and musical significance. Immediately accessible, listenable and with the characteristic sound world we associate with Dr Downie this piece will remain in the folder for many seasons to come, especially with the band’s connection with Rock of Ages.

After a brief intermission the band started the second half with 2 upbeat pieces, “Toccata Fire” (S.Ponsford) and “Birdland” (Arr. S. Smith) with Wycliffe joining the band for the latter soloing over the last 30 bars with epic effect.

Sporting a paisley shirt for the remainder of the program Wycliffe showed the audience how quiet and high he could play in Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” Arr. Mark Freeh. Finishing in the stratosphere somewhere, his tone throughout was clear, vibrant and beautiful with the sweetest of slide vib.

The showstopper of the evening was Wycliffe’s original composition “Me, We” which Wycliffe explained was a piece from a suite called “I Saw the Light”. A 2004 composition based on the poem of the same name by the famous boxer Mohammed Ali. Starting with a razzing solo section, Wycliffe used a pixie mute along with a plunger to recreate the human voice and thrill the onlookers with his amazing facility around the instrument before joining the band in a barnstorming lesson in old school hallelujah call and response.

After tumultuous applause for the soloist the band finished off the written program with Steven Ponsford’s “Turris Forissima”. Written for the Enfield Citadel Band’s tour of the USA in 2007 this piece includes Ein’ Feste Burg, Shout to the Lord and Blessed be the Name of the Lord to portray the assurance of God as our strong tower and protector. Perfectly bookending the earlier God is my Shelter this exciting piece also hints to Dean Goffin’s “My Strength, My Tower”.

The band were in full throttle by this stage of the evening and sounded like there was more in the tank, which was fortunate as the band encored with Wycliffe on Etienne Crausaz’s “Balkan Dance”. Appearing from the side nave, Wycliffe was playing his signature soprano trombone with a specially modified trombone mouthpiece. Although higher in pitch than his regular trombone, the sound had lost none of its bite and character as he cruised through the solo sections of this funk chart.

All that was left was the traditional NYSB final encore of “Stars and Stripes” and the vocal benediction “Rock of Ages” before brass fans and young aspiring musicians descended on the soloist for photo’s, autographs, mouthpiece recommendations and no doubt some quick hints. Of all the 132 festivals this was one not to miss.

By Nathan Power, NYSB Second Trombone

Watch the concert again here.