Scott Gwinnell has been a composer and pianist since he was just eight years old. And over the course of a successful music career, he has also, out of necessity, become an accomplished bandleader. He’s written more than 300 pieces of music and toured with such jazz greats as Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Billy Hart, Delfayo Marsalis, John Clayton, and Jon Hendricks, for whom Gwinnell was music director for three years. He plays with various projects, but composes mostly for his 16-piece group, the Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra. On his Mack Avenue Records/Detroit Music Factory debut however, Gwinnell stripped things down just a little.
He composed The Cass Corridor Suite for just six parts. The orchestration choice was a deliberate ode to his subject matter, a Detroit neighborhood with a reputation for both poverty and artistic expression.
“The tradition of Detroit’s jazz music,” Gwinnell notes, “has been rooted in ‘hard bop’, a style of jazz that frequently implemented these instruments (trumpet, alto sax and tenor sax, accompanied by piano, bass and drums). Even though I was tempted to extend my orchestrational pallet, I wanted to be true to Detroit’s ‘sound’. I’ve also tried to incorporate the musical elements of hard bop, such as: a focus on groove, mercurial tempos, and a touch of the blues. Barry Harris, Jones Brothers, Kenny Burrell, and Pepper Adams come to mind as influences for this music.”
Gwinnell lived in the Cass Corridor while pursuing a master’s degree in music at Detroit’s Wayne State University. “Being a child of a sheltered suburban community,” he says, “the Corridor was my growing up, my awakening into adulthood.”
For many years, the Cass Corridor was considered a crime-ridden artist’s ghetto. But, Gwinnell says, the gunshots and abandoned house were merely a layer of grime masking a brilliant artistic vibrancy. “As I learned more about my surroundings,” Gwinnell says, “I discovered the rich cultural past of Cass Avenue. But the most wonderful thing was that the Corridor’s artistic influence was not confined to the pages of Detroit history books. It was alive in the many young artists and musicians like myself who were living their passion and shining through a spectrum of vocations.”
Gwinnell’s Cass Corridor Suite explores the conflicted nature of that neighborhood through a succession of nine movements, each expressing a different side of the beloved enclave. In his “Introduction”, he evokes the spirit of early Western European religious plainchants, a single melody with no harmonic accompaniment. “Spark”, the second movement, represents Gwinnell’s shocking first impressions of the Cass Corridor. “It jolted me into a different world,” he says. “The multiple grooves, quickly changing from one to another, mirror the different new experiences I was having.”
Movement three, “Legacy”, is simply the Corridor’s legacy of hard bop jazz. “This was the music played at Cobb’s Corner and other places I frequented. I chose to use the chord changes of Charlie Parker’s classic ‘Confirmation’ as the harmonic anchor to this quirky, ‘boppish’, melody.” In the fourth movement, “Pain”, Gwinnell gives his impression of the Corridor’s history social and economic struggle.
“Guile” reveals a dark quality often necessary to stay afloat in the rough waters of the Cass Corridor. “This is my reflection on the street smarts that I saw in people,” Gwinnell says. “This movement acutely turns melodic corners as if it was dodging something.” “Patience”, too, is a necessity for Corridor artists who often must put financial security on hold in order to find their artistic voice.
As “Patience” turned a dark corner into the light of day, the seventh movement, “Optimism”, is what pushes residents of the Corridor past enduring and into prevail. “I hope that ‘Optimism’ conveys a feeling of focused hope and the trait of due diligence,” says Gwinnell. “The rhythm section, very subtly, carries this message through its groove.”
The Cass Corridor Suite’s penultimate movement is its most conflicted. “Duality” is jusxtaposition of two themes – one of hard-bop and modern jazz melodies, and one of simple pentatonic blues. “Poverty and blight juxtaposed against the artistic spirit of many of its residents is the duality of the Cass Corridor,” Gwinell says. “If one were missing, the other would not exist. Duality is truth; it represents the honesty that exists in a community with nothing to hide.” Gwinell concludes the suite with a final movement bringing all the disparate elements to a peaceful end.
Besides The Cass Corridor Suite, Gwinnell’s Detroit Music Factory debut includes three more tracks: Gwinnell-arranged four-horn version of "Blame it on My Youth” (selected as a tounge-in-cheek jab at how the suite revolves around experiences from Gwinnell’s own youth). Alto saxophonist James Hughes contributed an original composition, and Gwinnell himself composed "Kind Eyes."
This recording is also special, albeit unintentionally, because it happened to be the last professional recording for Detroit jazz legend, euphonium player, and producer on this album, Brad Felt; as well as Andrew Kratzat, one of Detroit's best bassists. The record is dedicated to them both.
Opening tune in our concert with the Motor City Symphony Orchestra. Greg Cunningham conducting the MCSO. Soloists from the SGJO are Paul Finkbeiner and myself.
You can view 2 other performances from this concert here: