November 30, 2015


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Bassist sizzles as WJO feasts on classics from Duke, Strayhorn

It was labelled as a show of Ellington's Nutcracker Suite, but it could have been subtitled Duke and Devon.

The swinging version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, has become a seasonal favourite, but the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra added a twist this year by adding bassist Devon Gillingham to the mix.

Gillingham, the 18-year-old Winnipegger studying at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, played vividly from the opening notes of the overture to the closing notes of Arabesque Cookie.

And the bassist contributed two compositions to the WJO's Sunday concerts, one of which won the first Jazz at Lincoln Center Essentially Ellington student composition contest and was recorded by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Gillingham reworked that tune, Remember to Forget, and wrote a new piece, Through This Air, for his appearance with the WJO.

Both compositions show he is a young man with a lot on his mind and the ability to say it in music, and his playing throughout the afternoon concert, the first of two, was close to brilliant as an accompanist and a swinging soloist. And both compositions made his bandmates work hard.

The concert was bookended by two favourites from the Ellington songbook, Cottontail and Things Ain't What They Used To Be, and Gillingham swung like mad through them both.

Things was a roaring encore by a band that had just finished performing the nine-piece Nutcracker Suite and apparently couldn't seem to get enough Ellington.

The ensemble opening of Peanut Brittle Brigade, from the suite, jumps out at you as classic Ellington/Strayhorn arranging and the tight group sound, punctuated by a host of great soloists, made this and the other tunes a real treat.

The suite is intricate, swinging, full of bold ensemble playing and maybe as much fun to listen to as it appears to be to play.

Trombones play a key role in big bands, and trombonists Jeff Presslaff and Brad Shigeta took great solos throughout the show. Bass trombonist D'Arcy McLean and Gillingham performed a tasty duet on Deck The Halls.

It was an afternoon of great solos, more so than usual from the WJO, as the musicians kicked out the stops, enlivened by the repertoire, both Duke's and Devon's.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2013 D3

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