Ask a jazz musician with Steve Wood's stellar credentials — and a reputation as a saxophone sage — why he plays with the Scott Gwinnell Orchestra gig after gig, year after year, and you'll get a sense of what makes the band so great for listeners too.
"First of all, Scott's writing and arrangements are spectacular and are extremely modern in conceptions. He has his own voice," says the tenorman who's been with the orchestra since it began a decade ago.
Wood, 55, continues to tick off Gwinnell's strengths as a leader: "He writes beautifully for all the various sections of the orchestra. He writes beautifully for the saxophone section. He writes beautifully for the brass section and the rhythm section."
And, finally, notes Wood, who's logged more than 30 years on the Detroit jazz scene, watching bands come and go, notes that "Scott has the best young jazz musicians in his band."
Gwinnell's orchestra, on the surface, can make you think of the hard-swinging outfits of the big band era led by Andy Kirk and Jimmie Lunceford. But Gwinnell's outfit has a decidedly more modern vibe and an edginess comparable to big bands run by Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and the Mel Lewis-Thad Jones team. In fact, when Gwinnell formed his orchestra in 1999, he made it a priority to track down Jones' compositions and arrangements.
Last month, at the downtown jazz club Cliff Bell's, Gwinnell threw a bash to celebrate the release of the orchestra's second album, Brush Fire. The club was SRO on a Wednesday night, a testament to the band's growing popularity.
The orchestra played Gwinnell's arrangement of the Horace Silver classic "Sister Sadie," and Wood chewed up the changes like breakfast cereal. Saxophonist Keith Kaminski, drummer Scott Kretzer and trumpeter Justin Walter were a triple threat on the title cut "Brush Fire," riffing back and forth like a volleyball team. Euphonium and tuba player Brad Felt was the most valuable player, soloing fearlessly like a tightrope walker and thickening ensemble passages with his sonorous low notes. The orchestra had the crowd spellbound. At the conclusion of each tune, the crowd was silent for a moment as if they were dumbfounded how great the music was. Then everyone went wild.
"When we're on the bandstand, musically, there's no goofing around. Once the downbeat happens, if you're not the person paying attention to your parts you will stick out like a sore thumb because you got 15 other musicians on your ass," Gwinnell, 34, says when we meet up later at the bungalow he shares with his girlfriend in Harper Woods.
Gwinnell is soft-spoken guy with a wry sense of humor. He has the girth of an NBA power forward. Dressed in faded jeans and a slightly wrinkled black polo, he sits at the kitchen table, discussing the band's rise. The tools of his trade and the objects reflecting his infatuation are near at hand. The living room is unfurnished except for a black piano in the middle and books stacked behind it. Hanging on the wall, there's a framed copy of Money Jungle, the revered trio date co-led by Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. In his civilian life, Gwinnell is a bookworm and self-professed geography fanatic.
Gwinnell grew up in Harper Woods, and graduated from Grosse Pointe North High School. His granddad, Russell Gwinnell, played violin with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Gwinnell's mom, Anne, bought Gwinnell his first piano, and his dad, William, introduced him to Detroit piano doyen Bess Bonier. She took the teenager under her wing, tutoring him for five years.
"Scott was a wonderful kid. He didn't have one bit of arrogance in him. While everybody else was in bed, Scott would be up arranging and trying to figure out the music. It's been wonderful watching him blossom," Bonier says.
As a teen, Gwinnell loved the heavy metal bands. Bonier changed that. "I loved Guns N' Roses and bands like the Beastie Boys. Jazz took over when I got with Bess. She started playing albums by Duke Ellington for me. I hated them at first, but I grew to love the music. I started borrowing albums from her," Gwinnell recalls.
In 1998, Gwinnell graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in music. After graduating, he had a series of unsatisfying gigs around town. He distinctly recalls an outdoor affair for the Red Cross. "They said they weren't going to pay me. I could play for five hours, and have all the hotdogs I wanted. It was awful. I can't do any gigs like that today," Gwinnell recalls.
When he started seeking work as a professional musician, Gwinnell aspirations were basic, he says. The pianist wanted to be a good sideman who got his tunes and arrangements played. He worked steadily as a sideman with alto saxophonists Larry Nozero and Larry Smith, and with bassist Paul Keller.
In fact, Gwinnell says hearing Keller's big band play at his high school made him want to form a big band someday. That day came in 1999, after months spent recruiting musicians who wanted to play his original music and arrangements. He promised that his band would be challenging, not a jam session band where guys got together weekly to get wasted. Sixteen musicians bought Gwinnell's sales pitch.
Immediately, the orchestra landed steady work at the Music Menu, a bar in Greektown. They played there two years. A year later, the orchestra released Basement Vibes Featuring Trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. The same year, the orchestra moved to Cadieux Café where they played three years.
In 2004, the orchestra stopped playing for two years while Gwinnell returned to Wayne State, earning a graduate degree in jazz studies. Then Gwinnell landed a full-time professorship at the University of Toledo as a professor of jazz piano.
Two years later, he released The Scott Gwinnell Trio, and he reassembled the big band. Half of the 16 original members returned, and Gwinnell filled the remaining seats with fresh, strong talent. The revived orchestra plays at Cliff Bell's.
The orchestra has built a loyal following, but it's by no means a moneymaker — at least yet. The guys stay together for the love of the music they play. The orchestra resembles a cooperative. The musician chip in to finance recording projects, and they're encouraged to contribute arrangements and original composition.
"To be honest, if the orchestra took a lot of money to run there would be no way I could keep it together like in the old days when you paid guys top dollar to tour. I like to call what we're doing bowling. On our night off the guys get together and play some good music," Gwinnell says.
As the CEO, Gwinnell hardly hogs the spotlight. When Gwinnell mapped out the music for the orchestra's sophomore album, it appears he tailored the compositions to display each member's strength raw and uncut. He rarely solos. However, when he does, the man's piano playing is refined and sophisticated à la Duke Ellington and Erroll Garner. But it seems that it's in projecting his music — his compositions and arrangements — through the guys on the stand that he takes his greatest satisfaction.
Gwinnell has lofty aspirations for the band. He wants to start playing high profile gigs, and get the orchestra national recognition. It has already started to happen in a small way. The New York Times website featured a cut from Brush Fire to accompany an article about Detroit's musical vitality in the face of so much economic despair.
And this summer Gwinnell will work with John Clayton of the famed Clayton Brothers Jazz Orchestra. Clayton is the artist in residence for the 2009 Detroit International Jazz Festival, and Gwinnell's orchestra will perform the last night of the jazz fest along with Clayton's outfit.
Not bad for a hometown musician who heard a big band in high school and dreamed of one day having his own.
The Scott Gwinnell Orchestra performs Saturday, April 25, at Cliff Bell's (2030 Park Ave.; 313-961-2543); first set at 9:30 p.m. The disc is available at cdbaby.com/cd/sgjo2.
Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]