In the September 8 Rifftides post about this week’s passing of Gerald Wilson, I mentioned his enhanced harmonic palette and its importance to modern jazz arranging (Photo courtesy of Gordon Sapsed). It is one aspect of the Wilson craftsmanship that continues to influence those who write for big bands. When I was working on the essay that accompanies the Mosaic box set of his Pacific Jazz recordings, Mr. Wilson and I discussed his development of eight-part harmony. He applied it to the piece he wrote in honor of the Spanish bullfighter Santiago Martín, known as El Viti (born in 1938).
“El Viti was a great matador,” Gerald says, “different from any other I ever saw. He never smiled, and he was tough. I tried to trace a picture of him, as it gets down into a unique part where his stuff in the ring would get wild but not overbearing. It was a place for me to use my eight-part harmony. You’ll hear the brass playing it, with two different times going at once. You know, I invented eight-part harmony.”
Here, the muted trumpet is by Wilson, the only instance of his playing with his band on a recording. Anthony Ortega is the alto saxophone soloist.
Again, from the Mosaic notes:
Multi-part harmony in modern classical music starts with Debussy and Ravel and reaches monumental proportions in Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives and Scriabin. I asked the composer and orchestrator Jeff Sultanoff about the use of eight-part harmony in jazz, and about Wilson’s role in it.
“As Gerald defines it,” Sultanof said, “it means that in an eight-part brass section, all parts are different, no doubling octaves and such. He was probably the first to do this, although other arrangers had tried similar things. I can think of Pete Rugolo as an immediate example, but he did not start doing it until about 1946, whereas Gerald claims he was doing it as early as 1945. I can also think of Ellington and Strayhorn who did not voice ensembles in the ‘standard’ way. There are isolated examples of it in Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan’s work, but I don’t recall anyone doing it on a regular basis before Gerald.”
In 1966 Duke Ellington recorded Wilson’s arrangement of “El Viti,” also known in the Ellington book as “The Matador,” in the Verve album of Côte d’Azur Concerts. It was one of 16 arrangements Wilson supplied Ellington over the years.
At Côte d’Azur, Ellington used the piece as a showcase for trumpeter Cat Anderson. Here, as the band plays, film from the bullring shows El Viti at work.
On his Jazz Profiles blog, Steve Cerra revisits his comprehensive post about Gerald Wilson. It reproduces a substantial portion of my notes, but not the descriptions and analyses of “El Viti” and the 94 other tracks in the Mosaic box. To read Steve’s post, go here.
The Wilson Mosaic CD box set is long out of print. Copies may be found for upwards of 400 American dollars on Amazon and eBay, but Amazon offers an MP3 version for considerably less.
A personal aside: A few years ago at the Monterey Jazz Festival, friend Orrin Keepnews and I wandered into the Turf Club, the artists hangout not far from the main stage. There was Gerald in his baseball cap and his irrepressible smile, sitting with his wife. He waved us over, and we four sat chatting, laughing and sipping for nearly an hour. The good feeling lingers from the last time I spent with that remarkable man.