Title: Still I Rise
Artist: Derrick Gardner & the Big dig! Band
Label: Impact Jazz
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: July 10, 2020
Trumpeter Derrick Gardner has gathered together friends and family to form a new ensemble that makes its debut on his latest release, Still I Rise. Christened the Big dig! Band, after co-leader Steve Kirby’s bi-monthly jazz publication dig! magazine, the 18-piece big band performs contemporary music composed and arranged by Gardner while retaining the classic feel of the swing era. In addition to Derrick, an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra and the Harry Connick Jr. Big Band, the group also features his brother, trombonist Vincent Gardner, who currently serves as artistic director of the Jazz Houston Orchestra. Other world class musicians from across North America include saxophonists Mark Gross (Duke Ellington Orchestra), Greg Gatien, Rob Dixon, Tristan Martinuson and Ken Gold; trumpeters Bijon Watson (Gerald Wilson Jazz Orchestra), Jeff Johnson, Curtis Taylor and Andrew Littleford; trombonists Joel Green, Anthony Bryson and Bill Green; with pianist Zen Zadravec, bassist Luke Sellick, guitarist Kasey Kurtz and drummer Curtis Nowosad heading up the rhythm section.
The majority of the tracks on the album reference Black artists and cultural icons. For example, the uplifting title track, “Still I Rise,” was inspired by Maya Angelou’s empowering poem. Derrick conceived the work shortly after Angelou’s death in 2014, “as if her spirit sang this melody to me,” and the poem’s message about overcoming prejudice and injustice certainly rings true in these troubled times. “Melody for Trayvon,” of course, is dedicated to Florida teenager Trayvon Martin who was murdered by a vigilante in 2012. The mournful track encompasses all of the “sadness, solemnity, and anger” related to gun violence and the untimely deaths that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Derrick explains, “As a composer and a student of human history, I see my music as a kind of activism… I want to create an empathic response that will move us toward eliminating this kind of sanctioned brutality.”
The uptempo “Blues à la Burgess” is dedicated to another family member, Derrick’s father Burgess Gardner, an accomplished jazz trumpeter who he claims “is one of the bluesiest musicians I’ve ever heard.” The rambunctious track is a showcase for Derrick, who demonstrates his virtuosity on the instrument he learned at his father’s knee. Another highlight is “Push Come da Shove,” a complex arrangement that showcases the trombone section. Derrick based some of his melodic and rhythmic phrases on the left hand riffs of pianist McCoy Tyner performing Coltrane’s “Resolution” on the classic album A Love Supreme.
Those who purchase the album should be aware that the physical CD contains seven tracks, while the digital version of the album includes three additional works: the jazz waltz “To Whom It May Concern,” the slow bossa nova “One Thing Led To Another,” and the sultry and bluesy “DAAAYUUUM,” which should not be missed.
Derrick Gardner proves himself to be a master composer and jazz trumpeter on Still I Rise, offering extremely complex and inventive arrangements that can be appreciated at many levels, while the incredible musicianship of the Big dig! Band is the icing on the cake.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss