Change is in the air these days, and change has come to Derrick Gardner’s long-standing group The Jazz Prophets. After over 20 years as a sextet with a firm front line of Gardner, trumpet, his brother Vincent on trombone and Rob Dixon on tenor sax, the lineup has been augmented by Brad Leali’s alto sax and Jason Marshall’s baritone sax, making this new Owl Studios album, Echoes of Ethnicity, by Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets + 2. Along with the new configuration comes a conceptual change, more a broadening of horizon than seismic shift, from the soulful, funky hard-bop roots of the sextet to a wider palette of sounds embracing a “little big band” tradition that also thrived during the hard-bop era under such leaders and arrangers as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Ernie Wilkins and Bob Brookmeyer.
“It’s a great instrumentation to write for,” says Derrick of the octet (actually a nonet with added Afro-Cuban percussion from Kevin Kaiser on some tracks). “It has the sounds of a big band but also has the looseness of a small group, so you get a really full sound.” Actually the octet is the smallest ensemble that has one of every instrument in the standard big band: trumpet, trombone, alto, tenor and baritones saxophones, piano, bass and drums. Of course such a lineup can and has been used for solo variety and a loose jam session feel, but here the full ensemble possibilities of the little big band are explored in six charts by Derrick and two each by Vincent Gardner and Rob Dixon. Derrick says he “wanted to include everybody in each tune,” making full use of backgrounds and a full range of ensemble strategies and tonal colors.
Whether it is a big band, octet or sextet Derrick is leading, one goal remains constant: connecting with the listener. Technique and virtuosity may be all well and good, but the ultimate test for Derrick is listener appreciation, moving the audience. With that in mind, the music was given a live workout before an audience at an Indianapolis club, The Jazz Kitchen, the two nights before the band went into the recording studio.
Echoes of Ethnicity encapsulates the exuberant feel of this new chapter in the changing story of Derrick Gardner & The Jazz Prophets, now +2.