LifeSongs
Release Date: January 26, 2024
Label: Alternate Side Records

 A rich musical journey inspired by life itself, LifeSongs is a crowning achievement for the twice-GRAMMY nominated artist, who is known internationally for his virtuosic command of the trombone, and widely recognized as one of the great big band composers of our era.  

LifeSongs represents something of a musical homecoming for Marshall Gilkes. The lauded trombonist spent four memorable years in Cologne, making his mark within the ranks of the WDR Big Band’s brass section until his departure in late 2013. Just a month after his tenure ended, Gilkes and the WDR Big Band reunited for what would become the smashing, 2x GRAMMY nominated album Köln. His first large ensemble project as a leader, Köln formally introduced Gilkes as a multifaceted composer-arranger-conductor-soloist force to be reckoned with. In 2018, the two teamed up again for the critically acclaimed Always Forward, of which All About Jazz praised as “succeed[ing] on every level.” Now, the two entities come together once again for a third go with LifeSongs. 

When composing the music that would make up his eighth album as a bandleader, Gilkes noticed a commonality across his compositions. “I realized that a lot of the themes for these pieces relate directly to life and what’s going on in the world these days,” Gilkes explains.  Channeling these moments, both in his personal sphere and the greater whole, he crafted a breathtaking collection of material tied directly to these times. 

“Fresh Start” is the album opener, and addresses the top of tabula rasa —or blank state as it relates to existence after the pandemic, with boldness and brilliance. A driving straight-eighth number that Gilkes likens to a mini concerto, it proves to be the ideal entryway as it spotlights his virtuosic horn work and the outfit’s passionate embrace of his writing. Eyeing the same subject from another angle, the soulful “Back in the Groove” references the pace of life renewed, with a spotlight on the alto saxophonist Johan Hörlén and pianist Billy Test.  “I just love the drive in Johan’s playing, and he has these great harmonic ideas so, in blowing over a vamp like he does here, he can really take things to different places and then get right back to where things need to go,” Gilkes shares. Equally enthusiastic about Test’s contributions, the leader praises his piano soloing and how it connects to a key influence. “Part of the inspiration for this tune comes from Brad Mehldau and the groove on his version of  “50 Ways to Leave Your Love” from Day is Done. Billy shared that he used to transcribe a lot of Brad’s work. And he brought something really unique, but in that vein, to the table.”

Shifting focus to family, Gilkes revisits and revises the stunner “Cora’s Tune”. Written for his daughter, “Cora’s Tune” can be found on two of Gilkes’ previous albums including his 2020 trio recording Waiting to Continue, and with the trombone quartet he co-leads, Slide Monsters, on their 2021 release Travelers. Demonstrating fondness for the warm blend between clarinets and trombone, and providing a noted balance between tenderness and might, Gilkes breathes new wonders into the air while retaining the shape and structure of the original. “Template-wise it’s similar, with the exact same form as the trombone quartet version…but just completely different orchestration,” he shares.

Leaving that musical arena behind for a statement suffused with gravitas, a united front tackles a serious issue and delivers an affecting masterpiece in the form of “My Unanswered Prayer.” “That’s about gun violence, particularly in the U.S.,” Gilkes notes.  Tired of the thoughts-and-prayers response accompanying each and every senseless shooting, he penned a poignant reply where brass builds with elegiac tones, a flute sings with solemnity and grace, he pours his own heart into his horn, and Test follows suit and gets inside the emotional core of the composition. The augmented harmonies prove haunting, which, as Gilkes mentions, fits the scary nature of the matter

Reaching the midpoint of the program, the trombonist offers an alluring outlier with “All the Pretty Little Horses.” The first and only chart he’s ever written for vocals and large ensemble, its origin lies in slumber.  “The Air Force Academy Band commissioned me to write that a few years back. They asked me to write a children’s tune in essence, so I thought, ‘What about this lullaby that I used to hear my mom singing to my kids all the time?’” A beautiful platform for guest vocalist Sabeth Pérez, who’s foregrounded alone and in a wordless pas de deux with Hörlén’s soprano, it proves to be a buoyant, spellbinding charmer.

Returning to the realm of instrumentals, the brass receives its due with three disparate gems.  “Middle Ground,” which calls for a common meeting place, arrives first and features the trombones. “I wanted to do something different to really showcase the sound of this section, especially with the chorales,” he notes. “And then there’s a Latin portion and the basic tune as well.” Ludwig Nuss and Raphael Klemm solo first, and Gilkes trades with his old friend (and onetime Interlochen roommate) Andy Hunter in the spicier sector. An expansion of “Sin Filtro”—the brass-only bonus track from Cyclic Journey—gives Gilkes a chance to put his stunning slide into play over a Balkan-ized slant on a Spanish-tinged knockout. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine,” which appeared in a markedly different version on his 2005 debut Edenderry, serves as a vehicle for Andy Haderer’s gorgeous flugelhorn work. Nodding to his children on the charged “Sugar Rush,” Gilkes paints a portrait of candy-fueled youth and gives tenor saxophonist Paul Heller some space to shine. Winking to arranging icon Bob Brookmeyer via a dovetailing saxophone section, and presenting outstanding ensemble work throughout, it offers a reminder about the power at play in this fruitful collaboration while homing in, both literally and figuratively, on life’s sweet gifts.

Adding riches beyond that official conclusion, Gilkes crafts a coda for this digital edition of the album with two bonus tracks that look toward his Hudson Valley base and build on originals from Waiting to Continue.  A hard-swinging “Taconic Turns,” mirroring the trombonist’s southbound route from his hometown to New York City, rides high and lives in the big band tradition. “There’s a sax soli in it and it’s a little slower than how I first recorded it, so the band is able to dig in a little bit more than we did on the trio rendition,” Gilkes explains. Featuring some magical muted trumpet work from Ruud Breuls and a strong showing from alto saxophonist Pascal Bartoszak, the performance contains no shortage of thrills.Things come to a true end with “Longing for Home.” Providing ample room for bassist John Goldsby and tenor saxophonist Ben Fitzpatrick to stretch out, this arrangement opens on a brand new, fully-scored introduction before the theme takes hold with Brazilian-accented backing.  “When I sat down to write this, I don’t know where it came from but I just started writing that introduction with the clarinets,” Gilkes notes.  “It has its own flavor, but it takes some harmonies from the tune before it actually really goes into it.”  Signaling saudade both in name and bearing, it’s a number that, aptly enough, reflects on the roots that support Marshall Gilkes and encourage him to thrive.

DICK METCALF
CONTEMPORARY FUSION REVIEWS
"If you're seeking out inspiring jazz, you'll find trombonist Marshall's performance(s) with the WDR Big Band fits the bill (in all ways)." Check out the full review here.

JEREMY SMITH
LAST ROW MUSIC
"A rich musical journey inspired by life itself, LifeSongs is a crowning achievement for the twice-GRAMMY nominated artist, who is known internationally for his virtuosic command of the trombone, and widely recognized as one of the great big band composers of our era." Check out the full review here.

RICHARD ALLEN
A CLOSER LISTEN
"Trombonist Marshall Gilkes teams with The WDR Big Band on LifeSongs, which includes a piece that address gun violence, balanced by a lullaby: an example of dynamic diversity" Check out this album announcement here.

JEFF KROW
AUDIOPHILE AUDITION
"This is a top notch big band release, with great arrangements, and so easy to recommend. It’s only January, but I’ve got a strong feeling that LifeSongs will be on my list for one of the best jazz releases of the year. ." Check out the full review here.

THIERRY DE CLEMENSAT
PARIS MOVE
"As you can see, Marshall Gilkes is a man of his time, creating engaged and, one might say, political music, but above all, music imbued with humanity." Check out the full review here.

STEPHEN GRAHAM
MARL BANK
"...there's a get down swagger on 'Back in the Groove' that is pretty satisfying." Check out the full review here.

JIM HYNES
MAKING A SCENE
"Gilkes has a true gift for large ensemble fare..." Check out the full review here.

ROB LESTER
TALKING BROADWAY
"It's dignified, rich and elegiac, the restrained rue intensifying to heart-pounding passion by the end." Check out the full review here.

GORDON JACK
JAZZ JOURNAL
"The concerto-like Fresh Start is a bravura performance by the leader, who interacts with the ensemble with declamatory passages, rather like Rob McConnell used to with his Canadian Boss Brass." Check out the full review here.

TAK TOKIWA
INTOXICATE
Check out the full review in Japanese here.

MIKE GREENBLATT
GOLDMINE MAGAZINE
"Whole Lotta Action Here! Complicated, circuitous, complex, authentic, reaching out in all directions at the same time (like life itself)..." Check out the full review here.

GARY FUKUSHIMA
DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE
"Gilkes’ pure silken tone is mirrored in these immaculate orchestrations, his original compositions sunny and melodic, his themes fully developed into complete pieces." Check out the full review here.

ED ENRIGHT
DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE
"... LifeSongs reaffirms Gilkes’ status as one of the premier large-ensemble composers of our time, and once again establishes him as a first-rate instrumentalist and improviser whose many gifts amount to a gift from the universe to anyone eager and brave enough to embrace life itself." Check out the full review here.

RICHARD B. KAMINS
STEP TEMPEST
"The music is rich with melody and possibilities, the section arrangements often sing brightly, and the soloists are on the top of their game." Check out the full review here.

BARRY FOX
JAZZ VIEW
"Sugar Rush is a wonderfully descriptive piece about what happens when you give kids too many sweets." Check out the full review here.

GEORGE KANZLER
NEW YORK CITY JAZZ
"A virtuoso trombonist, Gilkes is also an ambitious, demanding composer-arranger, creating intricate, complex charts that require astute execution (an ethic he gets from the WDR Big Band)." Check out the full review here.