Bill Warfield Goes Home On Chesapeake, His New Album With The Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra, Releasing August 2, 2024 via Planet Arts

There’s a nostalgic photo from his own youth that trumpeter-composer-arranger-bandleader and Baltimore native
Bill Warfield cherishes to this day. It’s a picture of his father and his uncle John in a fishing boat, tonging for oysters on Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States. “My father’s family came from Delmarva Peninsula there and they were fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay,” he recalled. “He and all his brothers grew up fishing the brackish water on the Bay. Those guys would get up at like four in the morning to go out crabbing and oystering and all that. By the time this photo was taken, my father had moved away from the Bay. He became a cash register mechanic for NCR but all of his brothers stayed there. So in the photo, uncle John is standing there in his work clothes with the tongs and my father is standing next to him, watching him work. It’s a really cool photo, man. And when I look at it, I think about my Dad all the time. He was a really unique individual.” Lost in reverie, Warfield continued. “It was really a trip to grow up on Chesapeake Bay. Hell, I basically was down there a third of my life. The lifestyle was incredibly laid back and they were always really very sweet people around there. I just have so many great memories of that place.”

Chesapeake Bay serves as the prime inspiration for the aptly titled Chesapeakethe new album by Warfield and his hard-hitting Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra, due out August 2, 2024 via Planet Arts. For his most autobiographical work to date, Warfield taps fellow Baltimorean Gary Bartz, as well as special guests Conrad Herwig, Lou Marini, Paul Shaffer, and conductor/pianist Eugene Albulescu to augment his Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra.

“It turns out he used to go down and hang out there during the summer, so we both had this feeling for the Bay,” said Warfield on the great Gary Bartz. “It’s got a vibe when you go down there and that’s what I’m trying to sort of grab with this project. And Gary personifies the vibe of the Bay. If anybody’s got it down, he’s got it down.” The addition of Bartz is a great boon to Chesapeake, and is a full circle moment for Warfield who has long considered Bartz a bit of a “boyhood hero”. Notably, Bartz played on Shaw’s great 1971 Contemporary album, Blackstone Legacy, which was Warfield’s first Woody Shaw album. Warfield had seen Woody perform at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom when he was still attending Towson University under the tutelage of Hank Levy (saxophonist-composer for Stan Kenton and Don Ellis orchestras), and the show had a profound effect on him. 

Bartz’s presence is felt profoundly throughout Chesapeake, particularly on Tom Harrell’s “Terrestris,” Cecilia Coleman’s affecting title track and the alto saxophonist’s own evocative, calming ballad “Nusia’s Poem,” with its allusions to Coltrane’s “Naima.” Bartz also delivers a closing a cappella version of the stirring “Beneath the Stacks” theme that bookends Chesapeake

Other guests on Chesapeake include longtime Mingus Big Band trombonist Conrad Herwig, who solos with typical virtuosity on “Nusia’s Poem” and Warfield’s “Light,” and former musical director, band leader and sidekick to David Letterman for 33 years, Paul Shaffer, who supplies fundamental Hammond B-3 organ work throughout. This is Shaffer’s third appearance with the Hells Kitchen Funk Orchestra. “ I always get a big kick out of working with Paul in the studio. It’s like watching a little kid again. And you have to admire after all those years of doing that job how he still loves making music and still gets excited by it,” Warfield reflects. 

Shaffer’s presence is most prominently felt on the organ-fueled crescendo to “Currents,” the subtle cushion he provides beneath the mournful minor key Hoagy Carmichael standard “Baltimore Oriole” (a tune famously covered by the likes of Sheila Jordan, Carmen McRae and Bob Dorough and sung here by Jasia Ries), on Cecila Coleman’s swaggering, blues-tinged shuffle-swing number “Messenger” and The Meters’ funk anthem, “Cissy Strut,” which carries a potent horn arrangement by Warfield reminiscent of Tower of Power. “The thing I did most in Baltimore when I was growing up was playing with R&B bands,” said Warfield. “And of course, at the time when I was there, Tower of Power was big. And I played a lot of that music in Baltimore. Gary did too.

A Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra alumni, Warfield adeptly integrates a motif from Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” into the fabric of Harrell’s Latin flavored “Terrestris” in his clever arrangement, then drops in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House” in the intricate horn lines near the end of the piece (the title of which roughly translates to “of the Earth”).

Cecil McBee’s “Wilpan’s Walk” is a burner highlighted by bold, incandescent solos from Marini, Warfield and Riekenberg. “That was my favorite tune when I was in college,” said Warfield. Warfield’s “Light,” a kind of funky montuno extrapolation on the traditional gospel tune “This Little Light of Mine,” features stellar soloing from trombonist Herwig, tenorist Dave Riekenberg and guitarist Bruce Arnold, who digs in with distortion-laced fury. Cecilia Coleman’s “Messenger,” which carries a touch of swagger reminiscent of Neal Hefti’s “The Odd Couple,” features irrepressible solos from Warfield, Bartz and guitarist Mark Chertkoff. And her luminous title track features her own lush horn arrangements providing a cushion for the gently introspective number while featuring Bartz’s brilliant soloing. “That’s my favorite cut on the record,” said Warfield. “She really knocked it out of the park with that one. I’ve not ever used other people’s compositions on my records, but in Cecilia’s case I made an exception.”

One of the more flexible large ensembles on the New York scene, capable of swinging fervently, playing a persuasive mambo or laying down the funk in no uncertain terms, the Hell’s Kitchen Funk Orchestra covers a lot of bases on Chesapeake. Said Warfield, “I want to thank all the people that came together for this project — and there’s got to be 25 of them in all. It’s a very important part of my musical history now, and I’m grateful for it.”

Derived from liner notes by Bill Milkowski.

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