Album reviews

Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, Ronnie Cuber and the WDR Big Band/Abene – ‘Center Stage’

Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, Ronnie Cuber and the WDR Big Band/Abene – Center Stage

(Leopard D77107 – Album review by Mark McKergow)

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Drum virtuoso Steve Gadd gets the surviving Gadd Gang back together on this session featuring big band takes on their soul-jazz-blues-pop classics repertoire. The results are a joyous celebration of top material, snappy arranging and wonderful musicianship.

For anyone who’s been on Mars the past fifty years, Steve Gadd has performed with apparently everyone in the world of music, from Milt Jackson to Simon & Garfunkel, Steely Dan to Chick Corea on literally hundreds of CDs and thousands of live shows. A master across musical styles, he is maybe best known for his ‘in-the-pocket’ ability to drive a tune without dominating it.

One of Gadd’s ventures in the 1980s was the Gadd Gang, a group of jazz musicians who played soul and numbers from the 1960s soul and R&B period to great success.  Michael Abene, conductor of the WDR Big Band from 2004-2014 and an old friend, mooted a joint project over a decade ago which has now come to fruition.  Baritone sax giant Ronnie Cuber and bassist Eddie Gomez return to their Gadd Gang roles, with German guitarist Bruno Müller in for the late Cornell Dupree and Simon Oslander and Bobby Sparks II taking turns on keyboard duty in the shoes of the much-missed Richard Tee. And of course we have the WDR Big Band, as sharp an outfit as any in the world, giving their extra level of full sound and pin-sharp performance.

The album kicks off with Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, and exuberance overflows from the start. Müller’s guitar leads off the tune with the band riffing along and Gadd’s drums thriving on the tightrope of dynamic (yes) and flashy (no, not quite). What makes this set particularly interesting is that instead of the (perhaps expected) electric bass guitar we have Eddie Gomez on upright double bass throughout, adding a jazz pedigree to this funky music. (And yes, it IS the same Eddie Gomez as appeared in Bill Evans’ trio on the famed Montreux Jazz Festival LP in 1968!) Ronnie Cuber steps up for a well-pitched baritone solo before Simon Oslander makes the first of several good contributions on piano.  Gadd takes a spot towards the end of the number before Cuber takes it out alongside the horn section.

The nine tracks cover a range of sources, and it’s Bob Dylan’s bluesy Watching The River Flow up next as a strolling shuffle. The WDR Big Band’s alto sax Karolina Strassmayer swaps eights with Ronnie Cuber very effectively – it’s good to see players from a different generation stepping up. Eddie Gomez keeps the mood going in his double stopping solo soulful solo. I Can’t Turn You Loose, one of Otis Redding’s signature tunes is taken at a medium pace, while Pino Daniele’s beautiful ballad Che Ore So gives space for Cuber’s sax and Ludwig Nuss’ smooth trombone to feature.

A favourite track of mine is Them Changes, the Buddy Miles stormer from 1970 (which featured Phil Woods on alto sax in the band, fact fans).  Starting in classic funky territory, the band drops into a fast-yet-relaxed walking bass feel for solos from Simon Oslander (organ this time) and Paul Heller who steps from the ranks on tenor saxophone. There are two Steve Gadd originals including Lucky 13, a catchy off-stepping number from his 1984 debut solo album Gaddabout which can be seen on Youtube (link below). My Little Brother, written with Richard Tee, closes the album in sparkling style with super harmonies and brass freestyling in the distance.

This fine album is both a celebration of great music from half a century ago and the long careers of some of the finest musicians on the planet.  A real treat.

Link: Purchase Center Stage – released today 7 October

LJN Interview with Karolina Strassmayer

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