It was Gerald Wilson tribute time at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on Saturday night. And it would be hard to find anyone who deserved the recognition more than the still-spry and gregarious 86-year-old composer, arranger and bandleader.
Wilson has been playing a significant role in Los Angeles jazz for nearly 60 years. And despite some eye problems, he continues to maintain an active schedule of teaching, composing and performing.
For this outing, the principal assignment was the writing of a three-part work, "Diminished Triangle," commissioned for the occasion by the program's sponsor, the California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz, and performed by the Gerald Wilson Big Band. Typically, the engaging piece was founded upon the primary pillars of Wilson's art: a rich harmonic scheme, plenty of open space for improvisations, his gifted skills as an orchestrator and a deep affection for the blues.
Wilson's Big Band is a Southern California rarity -- a large jazz ensemble whose personnel has been performing together for years. Some of the players have been with Wilson for more than 40 years. That's the sort of continuity that can create relaxed, intuitive interplay among musicians. And the band's ensemble passages -- especially in frequently performed music such as Wilson's "Blues for the Count" and "Viva Tirado," as well as his briskly swinging take on "Perdido" -- were fine examples of jazz collectivity at its best.
Virtually every member of the 17-piece band had a few opportunities to solo. The most outstanding were the spirited tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington -- sounding good enough to make a move into the national spotlight -- the always dependable trumpeters Chuck Findley and Ron Barrows, and soprano and alto saxophonist Scott Mayo.
The only glitch in this otherwise appetizing feast was the occasional tendency of drummer Mel Lee to overpower the ensemble with high-decibel cymbal bashing. But the night, in any case, belonged to Wilson, one of the Southland's great jazz treasures.