Mind-Blowing Power and Tunesmiting on Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s First Album

by delarue

There hasn’t been a debut big band jazz recording as powerful, and lavish, and fun as Derrick Gardner and the Big Dig! Band’s first album, Still I Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – in a long time. Solos are brilliantly wild, Gardner’s compositions are colorful, unpredictable, explosive and have a frequently searing political resonance. It’s very brassy, as you would expect from a trombonist bandleader. The arrangements are a clinic in counterintuitive creativity. It’s the kind of record you want to transcribe, to steal every good idea from. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best debut of the year, but if the world ended today, this would be a lock. We’ll see what else happens between now and December.

A couple of elegant rounds of baroque-inflected counterpoint followed by a couple darkly simmering, insistent massed riffs fueled by bassist Luke Sellick and pianist Zen Zadravec’s looming chords introduce the mighty first track, Push Come da Shove. Then the orchestra engage in Mozart-like exchanges of voicings up to a brightly enigmatic trumpet solo over drummer Curtis Nowosadl’s careening swing. Soprano sax bobs and weaves relentlessly in tandem with elephantine, undulating drums, then the band return. Eighth-note harmonies echo 1930s Ellington and lead to a firebomb of a false ending with the trumpets going full force. Told you this was fun!

The album’s title track is another hard swinger, trumpet spinning and soaring as layers of counterpoint burst throughout the orchestra, trombone taking over the spotlight with a steely focus. They keep the brisk pulse going with Soulful Brother Gelispie, guitarist Kasey Kurtz in punchy, trad mode even as the brass punch harder and harder all around. Soprano sax adds a fleeting pensive edge, but the conflagration returns. Kurtz gets another round over as the firestorm reaches fever pitch and once again keeps his cool, no easy task!

The group memorialize Trayvon Martin, murdered by a Florida racist who was later acquitted, in the lustrously brooding, blues-infused Melody for Trayvon. The conversational pairing of muted and unmuted trumpets packs a punch, as does the alto sax versus the whole ensemble later on and the gravitas of the trombone solo afterward. 

The band pick up the pace again with To Whom it May Concern, Kurtz’s cascading riffage setting off more of an elegant avalanche from the band. Likewise, Sellick’s sotto-voce, balletesque solo sets off another round of echoes from the orchestra, down to a cynical, circling theme and world-weary trombone solo. The ominously modal tenor solo afterward over a floating swing is one of the album’s calmer yet most riveting moments.

One Thing Led to Another is a terse but haphazard clave number with another tart, terse soprano solo, trumpet and trombone solos as voices of reason against all kinds of devious accents and riffs from the rest of the band: the devil is on everybody’s shoulder here.

Blues á la Burgess wouldn’t have a thing if it didn’t have that biting minor-key….you get the picture. Strange quasi-Ellingtonian reed harmonies will get you smiling; the wildly soaring trumpet solo afterward ignites the brass, tenor sax drawing a more titanic response from the rest of the orchestra.

8 Ball, Side Pocket is also a blues, part retro 30s, part Willy Wonka movie theme, with a long, suave tenor solo matched by the piano. The slinky next-to-last number, a more ambered blues, is titled DAAAYUUUM. Muted trumpet descends memorably from the clouds, signaling a return to a triumphant twin-trumpet trope; tenor sax brings contentment before the whole thing goes up in flames. The band wind up the record with the epic Heavens to Murgatroyd, in many respects a Spike Jones-class parody of basically everything they’ve just done here, the bandleader bustling at the center along with a slashing interweave of voices. DAAAYUUUM!

A performance for the ages by the bandleader and his brother Vincent Gardner alongside Joel Green, Anthony Bryson and Bill Green on trombones; saxophonists Mark Gross, Greg Gatien, Rob Dixon, Tristan Martinuson and Ken Gold; and trumpeters Bijon Watson, Jeff Johnson, Curtis Taylor and Andrew Littleford.