One of the prettiest versions of Cherokee isn't taken at breakneck speed. Nor is it played dozens of times until the musician improvising runs out of ideas. It's by trumpeter Joe Wilder from an album recorded in January 1956 called Wilder 'n' Wilder.
Rather than tearing out of the gate, as most musicians do who tackle Cherokee, Wilder takes the standard at a slower, skippy pace. The patient tempo is so surprisingly perfect for the song that you aren't aware Wilder is playing Cherokee until its sheer beauty forces you to wonder what he's playing and you reach to snatch the CD to see.
Wilder has that ability—to make everything he plays sound laid back and tasteful. Which is just one of many reasons why Wilder this year was named a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Fellow. And Wilder's in good company. Also named were Quincy Jones, Candido Camero, Andrew Hill, Tom McIntosh and Gunther Schuller.
Wilder made only six albums under his own name—three of which were recorded in the 1950s. Why so little output? Wilder was simply too busy as one of the most sought-after sidemen in the business. He played in the trumpet section of bands led by Les Hite, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, Cozy Cole and Wynonie Harris. And that was just in the 1940s.
In the 1950s, Wilder played on record dates behind or with Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Frank Wess, Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Ernie Wilkins, Mundell Lowe, Tony Scott, Urbie Green and Quincy Jones. I'm only up to 1956.
In the years that followed, Wilder played on every major jazz date (Quincy Jones' "Birth of a Big Band" orchestra, Billie Holiday's last recording in March 1959, and so on) before he headed up dates again in the 1990s.
Wilder 'n' Wilder (Savoy) was Wilder's first album as a leader. Cherokee is the first track on the album, and it opens with Hank Jones playing a seductive series of impeccable, vampy chords. Then Wilder comes in with a rich, warm, open sound, which is striking since most trumpeters in early 1956 were under hard bop's spell and played hot.
Wilder is backed by Jones, Wendell Marshall on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. Hank even takes an extended solo halfway through the track, and every note is a delicate delight. This is a dream group.
Wilder's technique on Cherokee—and all of the other songs on the album—sounds like a cross between Harry James and Clifford Brown. In Wilder's trumpet, you hear the dragged, bent notes of James and the lyrical side of Brownie. You also hear a lot of big band chops in Wilder's style, and his joy and craftsmanship are evident throughout.
I think it's fair to say that Joe Wilder never played a bad note. Which explains why so many session leaders fought to get him on their dates. Wilder's open sound soaring atop the trumpet section was essential—and unmistakable.
JazzWax tracks: Wilder 'n' Wilder is available as a Japanese import here for only $13.99. Or download the album at iTunes.
At the very least, download Cherokee and listen to how great Wilder, Jones, Marshall and Clarke sound together.
JazzWax video clip: To see Joe Wilder solo as part of a Count Basie-led band, go here. He takes the first trumpet solo (with that Harry James technique). The clip is from the famed 1957 CBS-TV program, The Sound of Jazz, and may well be the most incredible big band ever assembled.
Don't believe me? See for yourself. And dig how many swinging cats are wearing hats! And watch as Billie Holiday comes through the door in the back to catch the action. It happens in the beginning, as the cameraman starts to pan left but then has the good sense to capture her entry. She's completely knocked out by the sound and swing.
Go here to see a clip of Joe Wilder talking to a classroom of kids about his experience in the Marines and warning them away from drug use.