It’s Monday June 1, 2009 at approximately 6:14 pm and Derrick Gardner, the proverbial titan of hard-bop, is on a journey. After visiting his mother Dr. Effie Gardner (classically trained pianist) and a week long stint (gigging) in New York City, he is traveling across country to do what he does best playing JAZZ! Gardner, at full speed, has hit the road literally traveling almost nonstop for the past couple of weeks to promote his latest work, Echoes of Ethnicity.
Gardner recently gave up his professorship at Michigan State University to pursue his performing career full-time again. Over the years, he found himself splitting his duties of teaching at MSU with a stellar jazz studies faculty headed by Rodney Whitaker (bass), and performing with some of the most sought after musicians around the world. . .along with writing/performing with his own great band over the course of 18 years of his professional career. His recording as leader of the Jazz Prophets on Echoes of Ethnicity proves to be another spectacular high point in a career that has placed him among such awe-inspiring bands as Harry Connick, Jr., the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Frank Foster, Slide Hampton, Stefon Harris, and last, but definitely not least, the Count Basie Orchestra. In this, the 18th year of the Jazz Prophets' voyage is where our interview begins.
For a brief moment ,Gardner’s GPS system interrupts us as it mechanically barks out directions. This however, doesn’t stop Derrick from spitting out pearls of wisdom about jazz music for the audience at JAZZREVIEW. The Echoes of Ethnicity sound is soulful, funky, and the epitome of what hard-bop would have become in the setting of a five horn front line. Sultry, sensuous, and very reminiscent of the late 1950’s and 60’s, hard-bop ensembles blend with a hint of the new and refreshing mix of unexplored territory interjected by Gardner himself.
When asked about his musical influences and who really helped mold him in regards to compositing and arranging, Gardner replied, "My father would definitely have to be the first on my list. He was arranging and composing way back when I was a child. He has given me advice and help over the years with creativity and [how to develop] a listening ear. . ."
Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, David Baker and Frank Foster round out the list of Gardner's other arranging/compositional influences. He recounts his time with Foster. "‘Fost’ would be in front of the band bus (Basie) with a book of manuscript paper and a felt tip pen... without a keyboard. I would ask him to check out the score and when I finally got it back, the new ‘Frank Foster Picasso’ would help open up my hearing and creativity as far as the voicings were concerned and instrumentation. I would go back to the front of the bus until I didn’t have as much blood on the canvas."
Baker had a huge influence on Gardner’s composition as a musician. He says of that experience and others like it, "I was very fortunate to be able to get all the information directly from the horse’s mouth. Talking directly to the greats and asking question is an invaluable opportunity. The music recordings of Thad Jones & Mel Lewis Orchestra, Oliver Nelson, Horace Silver, Slide Hampton, and Frank Foster have heavily influenced me. What really impressed me the most was that they all had a distinct sound. You have to develop a voice, and the easiest way would be through improvisation, and that ranges to the hardest composition."
As to the writing influences on the Jazz Prophet’s newest album Echoes of Ethnicity, they range from Afro-Cuban music, Freddie Hubbard, Parliament Funkadelics, Sam Rivers, Bar Clays, Thad Jones, Earth Wind & Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, Woody Shaw, Miles Davis, and Roberta Flack definitely an eclectic mix, a mix where the listener is treated to a variety of ethnic musical tastes. "I didn’t really come up with the name of the CD until I finished and saw that the tunes and subject matter harkened back to the various cultures. The title basically comes from the programming of the tunes, of which five various ethnicities harken back to Freddie Hubbard’s Melting Pot.
Derrick leads the writing for the ensemble cast, but the composition/arranging is rounded out by a set of great writers, brother Vince Gardner(trombone) and Rob Dixon (tenor sax). All three writers take this revamped ensemble on a trek that ultimately takes the listener to a variety of destinations. The first thing that pulls the listener in is the rich and full sound that the five horn line up gives the arranger/composer. The ensemble, plus two, has added alto and baritone sax to the line up, which adds a depth and fullness not easily attained with the usual three-horn line up the band has enjoyed for the past 17 years. "I always wanted to do an octet recording that was due the harmonic possibilities that having five horns out front has, but my true writing style lies within the sextet with three horn up front."
This album marks a new place in Gardner’s career. He is refreshed and ready for the challenge of stepping back onto the scene full-time. "Right now, I am in a very great place. This moment I am in a kind of transition of sorts venturing out of the educational world and into the full-time performing world once more. I feel very good about getting back on the hustle and getting in the chow line." Derrick Gardner has now stepped back into the line for more chow.