What’s so good about this album is how both the guest musicians and WDR band members are given time in the spotlight.

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Steve Gadd (drums); Eddie Gomez (bass); Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax); Bruno Müller (guitar); Bobby Sparks (Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes); Simon Oslender (piano, Hammond B3); WDR Big Band: Andy Hederer, Wim Both, Rob Bruynen, Ruud Breuls (trumpet); Ludwig Nuss, Raphael Klemm, Andy Hunter (trombones); Mattis Cederberg (bass trombone); Karolina Strassmayer, Raphael Klemm, Johan Hörlén (alto sax); Malter Dürrschnabel, Paul Heller (tenor sax); Jens Neufang (baritone sax); arranged and conducted by Michael Abene.

Recorded WDR Studio 4  30 January – 3 February 2022

What is there left to say about drummer Steve Gadd? He is unarguably one of the most recorded and most influential drummers of the late 20th Century, and at 77, is still going strong in the 21st. Gadd first rose to prominence in the 70s with a string of recordings for the CTI label, supporting artists such as Bob James and Grover Washington Jr. His versatility extends across many genres – jazz, fusion, rock and pop, and it’s probably easier to list the artists he hasn’t played with (Gadd’s cv in the jazz world includes Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, George Benson, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorius , and the likes of Paul McCartney, Kate Bush, Paul Simon and Eric Clapton in the pop and rock fields).

Gadd has also been in a number of jazz-fusion bands, including Stuff and Steps Ahead, as well as forming his own band, The Gadd Gang in the 1970s. The original Gadd Gang included Eddie Gomez on bass, Richard Tee, keyboards, and Cornell Dupree, guitar. Baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber joined the band in the mid-1980s. Tee and Dupree died in 1993 and 2011 respectively, and this recording sees the remaining three band members reunited. The timing was most fortunate, because Cuber died in October 2022, aged 80, so this album documents one of his final recordings (Cuber died in his recording studio).

In addition to releasing 20 albums as leader, Cuber had played with an array of artists that included Horace Silver, Maynard Ferguson, Mingus Big Band, Frank Zappa and BB King. Gomez is probably best known for his long association with the Bill Evans Trio (he was a member for eleven years), but has also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, McCoy Tyner, John Scofield, Lee Konitz and Billy Cobham, to name but a few.

Tee’s place is taken by two keyboardists, Bobby Sparks and Simon Oslender. Sparks has played with Marcus Miller, Diane Reeves, Ray Charles, George Benson and Snarky Puppy. Oslender is only 24 years old, but has already released two albums as leader, and played with (saxophonist) Bill Evans, drummer Wolfgang Haffner and Randy Brecker. He also played with the WDR Big Band at 15, the band which shares joint billing with the trio on this album. German guitarist Bruno Müller was a member of the Icelandic jazz-fusion band Mezzoforte for seven years.

The album consists of nine numbers, including compositions by Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Wilton Felder. There are also a couple of Gadd compositions. The opening number is a punchy version of Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’ starting with a brisk drum fill and a fanfare of horns. Gadd lays down a strong groove and Müller’s guitar plays the vocal lines. Throughout the song, the WDR Big Bang periodically injects powerful horn lines into the mix, and Cuber plays a fine solo, his baritone emitting a rich, deep resonant tone, which is followed by a fluent piano solo by Oslender. Gadd’s comping is immaculate – on Cuber’s solo, he sets up a swinging rhythm using the ride cymbal and toms, but on Oslender’s solo, he switches to the hi-hat. The song includes a drum solo, featuring Gadd’s signature sound – a marching drum pattern with inventive use of snare, cymbal and kick drum. A shout-out to the recording engineer and mixer, because Gadd’s drums are superb captured, with every little subtlety – from the tiny variation in accents, to the crisp, open hi-hat strikes  recorded with great clarity.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Watching The River Flow’ really swings, with Cuber’s baritone sax leading the charge. What’s so good about this album is how both the guest musicians and WDR band members are given time in the spotlight – alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer trades licks with Cuber, and guitarist Müller unleashes a blues-drenched solo. Eddie Gomez lays down a strong pulse and also plays a solid solo. The musicians deliver a rousing version of Otis Redding’s ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose,’ with Cuber, Müller and Sparks (on Hammond B3) given solo spots.

After the three high-energy opening numbers, the tempo (and temperature) settles down for the ballad ‘Che Ore So.’ The music seems to waft along, like a soft, summer breeze, and Cuber’s baritone takes the lead role, with both Gomez and trombonist Ludwig Nuss playing majestic solos – it’s an exquisite rendition. Buddy Miles’ anthemic ‘Them Changes’ is given a spirited performance. Gadd drives everything along with a strong, steady beat. Cuber’s baritone plays the lead vocal lines and the WDR horns play the refrain. Oslender (on Hammond B3) and Müller both play funky solos, while tenor saxophonist Paul Heller’s spiky solo is followed by Cuber’s solo – the whole track sizzles with energy and it’s one of the best numbers on the album.

Wilton Felder’s ‘Way Back Home’ is a mid-tempo number that includes a long solo by Gadd, reminiscent of his terrific intro to Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.’ There’s a gutsy performance of Bill Doggett’s R&B smash ‘Honky Tonk,’ which is combined with a song made popular by Ray Charles, ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ to form a piece that lasts a little under nine minutes. The horns on this track are glorious, with WDR’s Andy Hunter letting rip on trombone, and Cuber on baritone. The keyboardists also get to shine, with Sparks playing a sprightly solo on the Hammond B3, and Oslender’s piano solo forming a bridge between the two tunes.

Steve Gadd’s compositions consist of the album’s shortest track (at just under four minutes) ‘Lucky 13’ and the closing number, ‘My Little Brother.’ The former is a tense, edgy, number, in which Gadd’s drumming is right in the pocket. Cuber’s dark, rich baritone interplays with an energetic horn section, and Gomez plays a busy solo, scat singing as he plucks, pulls and taps the strings. ‘My Little Brother’ (co-written with Richard Tee) ends the album on a high. It’s an uplifting, energizing tune that includes more sizzling hot horn lines and another superb solo by Gadd, reminding this writer of his solos on Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ and Ben Sidran’s ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’ Cuber’s baritone once again takes centre-stage, and the tune ends with everyone firing on all cylinders, before a blast of horns brings both the tune and this highly satisfying album to its conclusion.

Reviewed by George Cole