Reluctant hero 

It’s hard to think of a more unlikely musical hero than pianist Scott Gwinnell. The man seems almost painfully shy both offstage and on. But when his Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra brings to vibrant life another of his gorgeous arrangements, he’s doing something few other Detroit bandleaders are doing on a regular basis. To those who are hungry for postmodern, orchestral jazz full of edge, urgency, depth and improvisational freedom — music by the likes of Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and, indeed, Scott Gwinnell — the man is indeed a genuine, if reluctant, hero.

The Orchestra’s weekly gig practically defies gravity. For one thing, the music it plays is miles away from the typical big band hit parade. For another, the Cadieux Cafe, where all of this creative ferment happens on Tuesday evenings, has no rep as a jazz room. The sidemen are mostly new, unknown players. And, perhaps most amazingly, Gwinnell says he’s not interested in leading a big band.

“I still don’t like it,” he insists. “If it was my choice, I’d have someone else directing and I would just supply charts.”

But one’s wishes and one’s fate are often two very different things. Gwinnell started writing music when he was a lad of 8. He taught himself how to transcribe music when he was a teenager, wearing out the grooves of the sound track to Star Wars in the process. He played it over and over on his phonograph, painstakingly duplicating on piano what he heard on the record, and then writing it down. Eventually, he discovered Duke Ellington and then Mingus.

When he finally transferred from business school to Wayne State University’s jazz studies program, Gwinnell had a stack of his own originals and careful transcriptions that was far more interesting to his fellow students than the stock charts they usually practiced on. His classmates quickly got hooked on his budding “book.” Then the real world reared its ugly head — it was time to move on.

“I was graduating at Wayne a few years ago and a couple of the guys said, ‘Man, we would really still like to play that music,’” he recalls.

So he agreed to organize private rehearsals. But then his sidekick, bassist Pat Prouty, pulled a fast one. First he persuaded the Music Menu, the hopping Greektown R&B club, to let the band play there every week. Then he started pounding on Gwinnell to take the band public.

“I said ‘No way!’” Gwinnell remembers. “But he kind of convinced me that it was better to do that at the Menu than at some rehearsal room somewhere, because it would keep the guys more interested.”

And indeed, as the orchestra first spread its fledging wings at the Menu, then moved over to the Circa 1890 Saloon back at Wayne State, then traveled out to the Berkley Front before finally settling in at the Cadieux on Detroit’s east side in August, the guys definitely stayed interested.

“Maybe they are just trying to be nice to me,” he says of his band mates, “but I think they appreciate the originality of my approach. These guys, being good readers, do a lot of work with big bands. But a lot of them do standard fare charts that anyone can acquire … at least here it is different.”

Saxophonist Steve Wood, one of the few veterans in the band, says that the band’s loyalty to its unassuming leader is not at all about being nice — it’s about creativity.

“It sounds like New York City,” Wood says of Gwinnell’s writing. “His music is very mature — it’s full of complex voicings — it’s state-of-the-art, modern-jazz big-band writing. The band is really unique; it really has its own thing. You could compare it to the Mingus Big Band or the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Those are the models Scott has in mind.”

Typical of student-based orchestras, this is one very tight, swinging, in-tune group with an excellent ensemble sound. Not so typically, the interaction between each soloist and the rhythm section, which includes Prouty and drummer Bill Higgins, is fiery and satisfying. The most veteran members of the band — Wood and fellow saxophonists Mark Berger and Keith Kaminsky, as well as trumpeter Mark Byerly — consistently turn in top-notch solo turns. Even when the soloing by some of the band’s many younger members is less than that, it’s still a very good listen. That’s due to Gwinnell’s fabulous pen, and its ability to attract quality musicians hungry for such a unique creative opportunity.

“I leave parts open for them to put their own input into,” he says. “So they are composing half the tunes. That’s why I always hear something new in my charts every time we play them. That’s what keeps me fascinated.”

Jim Dulzo covers the waterfront and beyond for the Metro Times. E-mail him at

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