The title A Ride To The Other Side isn't intended to mean anything deep, but nevertheless the music is a thrill ride to the side of that soulful funky acoustic jazz of the sixties. Trumpet player Derrick Gardner is firmly behind the wheel driving that bus.
Derrick Gardner, the forty-two year-old son of accomplished musicians with PhD's, earned his stripes playing in ensembles such as the Count Basie Orchestra, Frank Foster's Loud Minority Band and Harry Connick Jr.'s Big Band. For the last seventeen years, Gardner has led a band of his own, a septet he christened The Jazz Prophets.
While the piano, bass and drum chairs have changed over the years, the trumpet-sax-trombone horn section has always respectively consisted of Gardner, Rob Dixon, and Derrick's brother Vincent. Nowadays, Anthony Wonsey mans the piano, Rodney Whitaker holds down the bass and Donald Edwards handles the drums (Kevin Kaiser helps out on percussion when needed).
Despite The Jazz Prophets being such a long-running going concern, they didn't record an album until 2005's Slim Goodie. A mere three years later comes their second effort, A Ride To The Other Side, from the nascent Owl Studios label.
From the first listen, though, it sounds more like the Blue Note label—and I mean the old Blue Note label— where even on an average day, hot blowing, memorable jazz was being laid to wax with regularity. Gardner and his crew bring that spirit alive again on A Ride To The Other Side. With nine out of ten tracks composed by band members and no standards at all, the album sounds fresh even as it hewns closely to tradition. It's roughly akin to a long lost Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers record being discovered in Blue Note's vaults; one recorded with the classic Shorter/Fuller/Hubbard lineup. Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley also figure in prominently in their funky, no-nonsense sound.
With every tune possessing a unique character and striking a perfect balance between groove and gritty technique, it's nearly everything you can ask for. Having not forgotten his stint in Basie's Orchestra (or Connick's) Gardner and his Jazz Prophets swing and swing hard.
These guys don't let up on their mission from beginning to end, and each song has something worth highlighting, but three tunes provides a good sampling of the Prophets' deep bag of tricks:
The opener "Funky Straight" delivers their own jazz message with a high-tempo, Latin-tinged groover. The Gardner composition is tightly constructed with a nice hook or two and after the horn section play through them effortlessly, each of the blowers takes turns soloing. Gardner goes first and while his big, fat tone combines elements of Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard, he has an intelligence in the way he picks and smears his notes that's all his own. His brother Vincent picks up where he left off and also improvises well. Dixon follows nicely and Wonsey wraps it up with a sizzler of a solo.
Gardner's "Mac Daddy Grip" is a classic Blakey strut and as the longest tune, stretches out the most. The improvising is punctuated with riffs from other bandmembers, including a clever "Love Supreme" quote for the unsuspecting.
"God's Gift," a Dixon tribute to his daughter Sidney, is soulful, introspective, and played with much feel. Paced by seven-note bass line, the composer plays around it effectively using blues notes that convey a somber, wistful mood. The other horn players follow suit with equally affecting solos, ending with Wonsey's well-paced runs and ruminations.
As a full-time professor of jazz trumpet at Michigan State University (where Whitaker runs the entire Jazz Studies program), Derrick Gardner packed at least a whole semester within a single disc. Jazz was always meant to be vibrant and fun to listen to. Sometimes we need guys like Derrick Gardner to remind us of that.
Purchase: Derrick Gardner And The Jazz Prophets – A Ride To The Other Side (not yet available on Amazon.com).