Gerald Wilson: Little Big Man Page 2

The second half of Legacy returns to another touchstone in Wilson's life, his long love affair with Chicago. "I lived in Chicago when I was with the Jimmie Lunceford Band. Also I was in the Navy, at Great Lakes [Naval Station]. Being in the [Navy] band, I didn't have to stay on the base. Those of us who could afford it lived in the city—we finished every day at four o'clock. So I know it. I walked the streets. Just like I know New York.

"[In the Legacy suite] I wanted to show what was going in jazz there. Chicago was a mecca for jazz. We know King Oliver came up in 1918 and worked there with a band, teaching them how to play New Orleans style jazz. With Jimmie Lunceford, we played the Sherman House there for six weeks—that's a big hotel. And we also played the Regal Theatre at least a couple weeks a year. So I had a lot to go on. [When it came time to compose this, ] I said, 'Chicago already has a great song. Frank Sinatra sings it. I'm not going to try to compete with those guys, I'm going to write a ballad for the Chicago Jazz Festival.' We play in a lot of different tempos, and each tempo tells where we are [in Chicago], but at the very end we play the ballad that shows the love, the real love, that comes from the festival to its city."

Riding herd on both Wilson's and McBride's big-band records is Al Pryor. A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Pryor is best known as one of the founders of WBGO in Newark, New Jersey, one of the nation's first all-jazz FM stations. After 11 years at WBGO, Pryor moved on to CBS-TV in New York, and NPR (WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts). Pryor also worked as the general manager of the jazz and classical label Grammavision Records in the 1980s, and as senior director of A&R and marketing for jazz and progressive music at Columbia Records in the 1990s, before becoming executive vice president of A&R at Mack Avenue in 2004. From the beginning he has always been intimately involved with the sound of the recordings he's been involved with, and his eyes mischievously twinkle when he says that he's a longtime reader of Stereophile "and your competition."

"Your older readers will remember that originally they weren't called mix engineers or track engineers, they were called balance engineers, and that's still the trick with multimicrophone recordings," Pryor says over a plate of capellini in a Manhattan restaurant. "I need to say this: I have enormous respect for Dr. Keith O. Johnson [inventor of HDCD], Ray Kimber [of Kimber Kable], and my fellow colleagues Norman and David Chesky—I love those recordings. But I've chosen a little different path. I've chosen to follow the path of the Rudy Van Gelders: figuring out how to create a sonic palette, with multitrack and multimicrophone usage. I understand the problems inherent in that: the phase problems, the microphone patterns interfering with one another and therefore causing issues with frequency range at various points. But this is the path that I have chosen, and it's a traditional record-company path. I work very hard to try to provide my artists and my engineers with the resources that they need to make the best recordings that we can."

Recording Wilson, whose way of working is idiosyncratic, presented Pryor with special unique challenges that now make him laugh. "Gerald's a whiz. He moves stuff around. Changes solos around on the fly. He works as an improviser. He's got the charts out, and he's like, 'Well, you know what I like.' You'd better keep up. And when you can't keep up, he's like, 'Well, it's on the page, and you're from New York, you're improvisers, so what the hell?' We're frantically making notes. I'm going, 'What happened to the C section here? Did we drop the coda here?' I think he gets a kick out of watching the guys behind the glass scrambling. We fixed him this time, though. After we made the record, Anthony [Wilson] redid the charts for us, to reflect what we actually recorded as opposed to what we started out with the first day of rehearsal. Gerald can get the best cats [to play with him] because it's such an experience. Your level of musicianship has to rise to his occasion. Cats come to play."

When I tell Wilson what Pryor said about the Legacy sessions, he laughs. "I've been working at this a long time. I use six saxophones. The regular sax section started out with four back in the Fletcher Henderson days. Actually, it started before that, because, see, Jelly Roll Morton had the first what they call big band. Duke Ellington, in his first group, he had two trumpets and one trombone. That's what Jelly Roll Morton had. He had that plus his rhythm section, because he was the piano player. Fletcher Henderson and Duke were the two top bands. Fletcher Henderson . . . you know the number that made Benny Goodman—they called him the King of Swing after he made this number, called 'King Porter Stomp.' Henderson had made about seven arrangements on that one number, but he hit the jackpot when he wrote that one Benny Goodman played. He had advanced in his orchestrating. Just like Duke did. Then, all of a sudden, Duke had six brass. I think 'King Porter Stomp' only had three trumpets and two trombones. I use nine brass all the time. Now I use five trumpets and four trombones. And six saxophones: two baritone, two tenors, and two altos."

Okay, I'll bite. "Why so many horns, Gerald?"

His tone instantly becomes more businesslike. "Well, you have the tenor sax trying to make a low A-flat. Say you're in the key of B-flat, and he [the tenor] would have the fifth coming up from the baritone, who has the root, which is the D-flat. You have the tenor sax trying to make that low A-flat. You have to be a real good tenor sax to get that low to make it sound good. He can't make that low A-flat, so I got the two baritones so I can make the perfect fifth, then go on from there. And that's what you hear on this new album. You hear all the heavy harmony come out."

Thinking back to my opening question, the old master, an utter pleasure to interview, and still very sharp in his ninth decade, cuts to the heart of the matter.

"You can't afford to let them [big bands] die, because all the guys that become great soloists, they've got to have a band to learn to play in."