Darren English, a young trumpeter from Cape Town, South Africa now living in Atlanta, makes his recording debut with the March release of Imagine Nation. Fronting a rhythm section featuring Kenny Banks, Jr. on piano, Billy Thornton on bass and Chris Burroughs on drums, along with guest shots on selected tracks by vocalist Carmen Bradford, tenor sax player Greg Tardy and trumpeters Russell Gunn and Joe Gransden, he runs through a 10-piece set highlighted by an original three-part suite celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid.
The three tunes in the suite are the album’s opening title piece (the punning “Imagine Nation”), “Pledge for Peace” (which includes spoken word sections from Mandela), and “The Birth” which follow later in the set. Since he calls this a suite, I would normally expect the three elements to follow each other. Why English chose to separate them, I have no idea. Indeed, they seem to play just as reasonably as separate pieces.
There is one other original composition, a tribute to Gunn, leader of the Krunk Jazz Orkestra, which English calls “Bullet in the Gunn.” English is a member of the Gunn orchestra and plays on their recent release, The Sirius Mystery.
The rest of the album is made up of well-known standards that give the trumpeter the opportunity to showcase his own original steps down well-worn paths. So, for example, when he plays the opening melody of the venerable “Body and Soul” without his mouthpiece, he seems to be serving notice of something new in contrast to the lovely tones that follow with the reintroduction of the mouthpiece. Whether it works or not is open to question.
He does a super job, on the other hand, working with Gunn and Gransden on an exciting version of the old Charlie Barnet showpiece “Cherokee,” and his take on the Dizzy Gillespie classic “Bebop” is a winner as well. Bradford does a fetching vocal on “What a Little Moonlight Can Do (To You),” and they work elegantly together on “Skylark.”
If his debut is any indication, both as composer and performer, Darren English is a force to be reckoned with.