WDR The Cologne Broadcasts, Mediagroup GMBH, Alternate Side Records

Marshall Gilkes – composer, arranger, trombone, conductor; Johan Hörlén • alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Pascal Bartoszak • alto saxophone, flute, clarinet; Ben Fitzpatrick • tenor saxophone, clarinet; Paul Heller • tenor saxophone, clarinet; Jens Neufang • baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Andy Haderer • trumpet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn; Wim Both • trumpet, flugelhorn; Rob Bruynen • trumpet, flugelhorn; Ruud Breuls • trumpet, flugelhorn; Ludwig Nuss • trombone; Raphael Klemm • trombone; Peter Hedrich • trombone; Andy Hunter • trombone (track 6); Mattis Cederberg • bass trombone, tuba; John Goldsby • bass; Billy Test • piano; Hans Dekker • drums; Sabeth Pérez • vocals (track 5)

Nine tracks recorded November 11/14/15/16 2022 Cologne, Germany

Radio station big bands are a fascinating phenomenon. The BBC Big Band, originally known as the BBC Radio Big Band, was officially part of the BBC from 1979 to 1994 when bean-counting suits at the Beeb decreed it had to dismantle. Thankfully, due to overwhelming public opposition to the decision, an agreement was reached whereby the band played on, albeit managed from outside the BBC and with its musicians freelance rather than BBC staff.

Things are very different in Germany where there are so many state-funded radio bands (and radio orchestras) with such fluid station organisation, that it’s hard to say exactly how many Deutsche/German Rundfunk/Radio Big Bands currently exist.  At least half a dozen seems a safe generalisation. These include the NDR, SDR and (as here) the WDR. The N, S and W stand for North, South and West.  Berlin-based RIAS (Rundfunk Im Amerikanischen Sektor) was a cold war legacy station.

Why are there still so many German radio bands, and orchestras? One theory is that they are needed to employ all the fine musicians coming out of all the fine music colleges which the German state also pays for.

Whatever the reason, the Rundfunk bands have long been famous for their high quality and readiness to employ top players and writers from all round the world, especially the UK and USA. Just about everybody who is anybody in jazz has at one time been on the German Radio Big Band Waggon. And long may it last.

This CD is from WDR, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in Cologne, with nine tracks recorded at the radio station studio in November 2022. The leader is American virtuoso trombonist Marshall Gilkes, who spent four years with the band around ten years ago and has several times returned to guest lead and record.

I think it’s reasonable to think that sometimes the DR bands sound a little too anxious to demonstrate their superb – often brass heavy – musical skills, rather than simply swing. As is the case here, where I must admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed by everyone’s ability and a tad underwhelmed on toe tapping.  The creative and very clever cross rhythms and double time ballads tend to make the music lurch rather than lope, which may or not appeal, entirely dependent on the listener’s music taste.

Of course, music should be adventurous, but I was left yearning for a little more simple swing. Much as I used to wish Tubby Hayes would not always astonish with so many notes, played so quickly. As always, though, don’t follow my preference. As per my note at the end of another review, give this WDR offering a taste listen on free Spotify.

All tracks are arranged by Marshall Gilkes and he wrote all but two tunes, traditional melody All the Pretty Little Horses and This Nearly Was Mine from Rodgers and Hammerstein. Trombone afficionados will marvel at Gilkes’ range-busting rapid-fire technique; budding trombonists may just give up playing. But a lot of the German radio Big Band musicians have that affect. The stations are like a breeding ground for musical Usain Bolts. I’ve seen a few on guest gigs in London, most recently with Rory Ingham’s glorious Trombone Assembly at a Pizza Express, and it fair takes the breath away.

My Unanswered Prayer is a glorious ballad, featuring the remarkable Billy Test on piano. He’s another American playing working with WDR in Cologne. Sugar Rush is a wonderfully descriptive piece about what happens when you give kids too many sweets. German Paul Heller on tenor and Marshall Gilkes both dazzle. I felt exhausted just listening.

It’s a given that CD sleeves are small, so a simple fold sleeve note must have limited space for text. But the print here is so small that I’m betting most people will need a big magnifying glass.