Mention the name Joe Wilder to almost any professional musician in both the jazz and classical worlds, and you're sure to get a smile and a testimonial -- not only to Wilder's musical talents, but also to his sterling personal qualities. Wilder has accomplished just about everything one can accomplish in music -- from big bands to bebop, classical concertos to commercials. He has not enjoyed the same success is in bringing his name to the general public, however. This failing is far more a function of his self-effacive nature than any lack of appeal in his music. Considering his near-legendary status among his peers, it is hard to believe that this is his first album as leader in over thirty years (he was co-leader with fellow trumpeter Joe Newman for a fine Concord LP in 1985).
Wilder was born into a musical family in Philadelphia in 1922. His father, Curtis, was (and still is) a bassist and bandleader. An older brother, Curtis Jr., also played bass. Initially drawn to classical music, the trumpeter studied at the Mastbaum School of Music. Realizing that, talent notwithstanding, a career in classical music was not a realistic goal for a black musician coming of age in the late 1930s, Wilder set out on a veritable big band odyssey. In great demand for his superb lead playing, as well as his solo ability, from the 1940s to the early 1950s he played in the orchestras of Les Hite, Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Herbie Fields, Sam Donahue, Lucky Millinder, Dizzy Gillespie, Noble Sissle, and Count Basie.
With the demise of the big bands, Wilder's musicianship enabled him to forge a new career playing for top Broadway shows. Beginning with Alive and Kicking in 1950, Wilder played in such hit productions as Guys and Dolls and Silk Stockings. He toured joined the touring company for the latter in 1953. When the show's composer, Cole Porter, was asked if he would object to having a black lead trumpet player in the show, Wilder recalls that he replied, "Can he play my music?"
In the mid-1950s, Wilder also penetrated the highly competitive New York studio scene. Once again confronted with racial barriers, Wilder overcame prejudice and stereotypes with sheer talent and consummate professionalism. He joined the select group of elite "first-call" studio musicians who skillfully (and almost always anonymously) produced much of America's recorded popular music until synthesizers and sampling began to replace orchestras. On staff at ABC from 1957 to 1974, Wilder was often called for two or more sessions a day, encompassing the most diverse musical settings. He found this life demanding, yet challenging.
In addition to his busy studio schedule, Wilder continued to build a reputation as a highly original jazz soloist through his own albums for Savoy and Columbia, and countless sessions as a sideman
with Hank Jones, Gil Evans, Tadd Dameron, Michel Legrand, Benny Goodman, and many others. He also became a favorite of vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Helen Humes and Johnny Hartman, who found their own work to be greatly enhanced by Wilder's sympathetic obligati. (Most recently, he has been the featured soloist on several recorded "songbooks" by Eileen Farrell.)
During the last decade, Wilder enjoyed a long tenure in the orchestra of 42nd Street. He has appeared on the Bill Cosby Show in both playing and speaking roles, and is currently a regular on Garrison Keiller's radio series. Wilder is a favorite on the jazz party circuit, and a frequent participant in the burgeoning jazz repertory movement. As senior member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Wilder often finds himself in the singular position of re-creating performances of historic big band charts which he played when they were new.
Throughout these varied endeavors, however, Wilder never lost sight of his dream of becoming a classical trumpeter. He graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, and, as some barriers began to fall, he finally realized his ambition. Wilder played on several occasions with the New York Philharmonic, and in the early 1960s, recorded his own album of classical trumpet pieces, including a work written especially for him by Alec Wilder (no relation). In 1968, he became principal trumpet for the Symphony of the New World, which Wilder cites as "the first fully integrated symphony orchestra in the United States."
Wilder's classical and jazz background ideally suited him for the "third-stream" experiments of the 1950s, and the trumpeter participated in challenging recording projects by composers John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and Johnny Richards. While Wynton Marsalis has been justly celebrated for his tremendous talent and accomplishments as both a jazz and classical player, the fact that some forty years earlier, another gifted trumpeter had similar aspirations -- and was able to realize them under adverse conditions -- is too often overlooked.
It is often dangerous to equate a musician's style of playing with his persona. Joe Wilder, however, is as sensitive, articulate, and honest as his playing. He also possesses a devastatingly quick and subtle sense of humor. While genuinely modest, his belief in himself enabled him to avoid the pitfalls that claimed so many of his musical generation. In fact, Wilder's sense of propriety is almost as legendary as his musical prowess. One long-time associate recalls that when Wilder was in Lionel Hampton's orchestra in the early 1940s, fellow bandmembers used to offer him a ten-dollar bill if he would simply utter one four-letter word. Wilder never collected!
Drummer Sherman Ferguson, after remarking what a pleasure it had been to record with Wilder, exclaimed, "And he never took off his jacket and tie!"
Reaching musical maturity during the transitional period between swing and bebop, Wilder easily fits into a broad range of musical settings, owing allegiance to no single school or style. His logical solo conception and pure tone are immediately identifiable, even on his earliest recordings. As Whitney Balliett wrote in a 1986 New Yorker profile of Wilder, "His solos are immaculately designed... He makes the song gleam."
Wilder's illustrious colleagues on this recording represent different generations and musical backgrounds. Although they had never played together as a group, it was clear that compatibility would not be a problem with musicians of this caliber. Indeed, the diversity of styles seemed a source of inspiration. Moreover, each player had great respect for Wilder, and was obviously committed to supporting him as sympathetically as possible.
Remo Palmier and Wilder are old friends and frequent colleagues. Palmier, like Wilder, has enjoyed success both as a jazz player (he is the guitarist on one of the monumental 1945 Guild sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker) and a studio stalwart (he spent 27 years with the Arthur Godfrey television show). Palmier (b. 1923) has an encyclopedic knowledge of harmony, a unique and subtle comping style, and above all, impeccable taste and technique -- in many ways, Wilder's counterpart on guitar.
James Williams (b. 1951), is one of the most important pianists to emerge in the last decade. He came to prominence as a member and musical director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the late 1970s, and has since led his own groups. The Memphis-born Williams, a disciple of the late Phineas Newborn, Jr., has forged a style that is all his own. He is also a talented arranger and composer.
Jay Leonhart (b. 1940) is at home in any musical situation. He combines the big sound and solid accompaniment of an earlier generation of bassists with the fleet solo technique of modern players. He has worked with an incredible array of jazz greats and leading vocalists. Leonhart has also enjoyed much success recently as a songwriter, often singing his own clever lyrics.
Sherman Ferguson (b. 1944) is one of the busiest percussionists on the West Coast. He tours frequently with Benny Carter and Kenny Burrell, and has worked with such notables as Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie. While this was his first meeting with Joe Wilder, the drummer remembers playing as a teenager in his native Philadelphia in a band led by Wilder's father. Ferguson's ebullient personality and exuberant playing lend a spark to any session.
The program includes some old favorites given new treatments by Wilder and company, a piece by Wilder's friend and colleague Benny Carter, and the first recording of a newly-discovered ballad by George Duvivier.
But Not For Me features fine solos all around, and is a good introduction to Wilder's highly melodic improvisational style. Using the Harmon mute, the trumpeter meticulously exposes the Gershwin melody, and then delicately embellishes it during his solo chorus.
Everything Happens to Me, played on open horn, shows off Wilder's lovely tone and singular phrasing. Palmier and Leonhart's solos perfectly complement the leader's. The piece ends with a patented Wilder coda.
Wilder came up with a delightfully swinging arrangement of Michel Legrand's I Will Wait For You, including an intricate new melodic figure in the out-chorus. Williams and Ferguson both shine during their extended solos.
Answer Me, My Love was immortalized by Nat King Cole in 1954. Wilder's tender interpretation is basically a flugelhorn - guitar duet, with subtle accents by bass and drums.
Wilder's unique treatment of Far Away Places opens and closes with a tongue-in-cheek, cowboy-flavored rhythmic figure. There is another inspired workout by Williams, who draws from his seemingly bottomless fount of ideas. Wilder, one of the few remaining plunger specialists, demonstrates this skill during an exciting series of trades with the irrepressible Ferguson. Palmier's and Leonhart's flourishes throughout add to the high spirits.
Alone With Just My Dreams had special meaning for all concerned. It was written in the mid-1940s by George Duvivier, but had never been recorded before. Every member of the group enjoyed a close relationship with the late bass master, whose talents as an arranger and composer have often been overlooked. After running through the gorgeous ballad, Leonhart looked toward the heavens and said, "George, you never told us!" The recording took on added meaning since Leonhart now plays the very bass that Duvivier used from 1939 until his death in 1985. Leonhart's beautiful arco introduction shows that the instrument could not be in better hands. The track is not only a moving tribute to a great musician, but a celebration of his talents, as well.
Wonderland is a little-known but very attractive melody by Benny Carter. It was once recorded under a different title by Mantovani in a decidedly non-jazz version. Wilder plays a marvelously conversational plunger-muted solo, the symmetry and logic of which befit the composer. After recording the piece, Ferguson exclaimed, "I'll be humming this one all day!"
I Love You is a high speed romp through Cole Porter's standard, with each solo leading seamlessly into the next. A highlight is the two-chorus dialogue between Leonhart and Ferguson.
Wilder opens It Might As Well Be Spring with a quote from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kiji Suite. Ferguson eases into a delicate bossa rhythm underpinning tasteful solos by Williams and Palmier. Wilder returns for another ravishing melody statement.
Struttin' With Some Barbecue begins and ends with a bugle call; Wilder, a Marine Corps veteran (he was assistant bandmaster at Montford Point, Camp Lejune -- the first black marine base) once recorded an LP of bugle calls! Without attempting a re-creation, the idiomatic solos manage to evoke the flavor of Louis Armstrong's 1927 Hot Five classic. Ferguson, especially, shows his familiarity with earlier drum styles during another set of witty exchanges with Leonhart.
Joe's Blues, a Wilder original, is an insinuating blues line written in 12/8. It is the perfect vehicle for Williams, Wilder and Palmier to display their very personal approaches to this universal and timeless musical form.
What a Wonderful World will always be associated with Louis Armstrong, whose version re-emerged as a hit some 15 years after his death in 1971. Wilder was deeply moved by Armstrong's poignant rendition. The two trumpeters enjoyed a friendship dating back to Wilder's youth. The great Satchmo heard Wilder play on a children's radio show in Philadelphia, and was a supporter ever since. "He always encouraged me, and I think he was proud of the fact that I made it in the studios," Wilder recalls. Wilder plays flugelhorn, backed only by the ever-sensitive Palmier, who also contributes a lovely solo. The track has a prayer-like quality, and is another example of Wilder's superb control and supreme melodic sense.
During the past few years, the media has fixated on the "youth movement" in jazz, often to the detriment of deserving veterans such as Joe Wilder. Wilder, however, ignoring fad and fashion, has remained unswerving in his commitment to beautiful sound and lyrical phrasing. As James Williams remarked after the session, "Every note has meaning and feeling. Joe just plays the right thing at the right time."
...Wilder's first album as a leader since 1959 contains excellent uptempo and blues numbers, its three slow ballads are highlights. ...a commanding stylist who combines the strong points of both swing and bebop.
-- Will Friedwald, The New York Times
...the most gently lyrical trumpet playing I've heard since the death of Chet Baker. ...this disc is a joy to listen to.
-- Michael Ullman, CD Review
...A thoughtful player who has retained that luscious tone through the years, Joe Wilder finally gets a chance to shine, and he makes every note count.
-- Scott Yanow, L.A. Jazz Scene
...extraordinarily fine record... Handsomely recorded and not a second too long, even with 70 minutes of music.
-- Mike Fish, The Wire (London)