Steve Gadd, Eddie Gomez, Ronnie Cuber & The WDR Big Band: Center Stage

German big band setting with young instrumentalists brings new life and perspective to Gadd Gang funk and jazz staples

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From the blare of tight brass falling into a groove underpinning gospel-licked piano and guitar, the big band arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s Signed Sealed Delivered opening this record is a far cry from the stripped-back version that appeared on the Gadd Gang’s second album in 1988.

Led by drummer Steve Gadd and featuring the talents of bassist Eddie Gomez, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber , guitarist Cornell Dupree and Richard Tee on keys, the Gadd Gang recorded two studio albums in the funk, soul and R&B tradition.

Before Gadd formed his gang though, Dupree, Tee and he were members of Stuff, the precursor band to what became Gadd’s group and the first to instrumentally arrange Signed Sealed Delivered as well as tracks from Junior Walker,  Earth Wind and Fire and Tamla Motown.

In line with Stuff’s musical aesthetic, the repertoire of the Gadd Gang similarly swung around soul, funk and jazz tunes, many of which are rearranged here by Michael Abene for the WDR Big Band.

This Centrestage project was first proposed back in 2011 but, due to scheduling conflictions, took until January this year to make it into the WDR studio in Cologne. With Gadd, Gomez and Cuber central as the principal players, Abene’s arrangements sit the trio in an orchestra setting, inviting some strong young instrumentalists to the mix, and thus giving a fresh approach and energy to the material.

After bringing the opening Wonder track to a close with a military-style drum break, Gadd drives the band into a hard shuffling take of Bob Dylan’s Watch The River Flow, a staple in the Gadd Gang’s live shows. Cuber takes the main melody and one of the solos, splashed with Bobby Sparks’ whirling organ and some Dupree-style fretwork courtesy of guitarist Bruno Muller.

All three players turn up the heat during I Can’t Turn You Loose, a horn-hitting reading of the Otis Redding hit before the set’s only ballad, Pino Danielle’s Che Ore Sally, cools things down with some tender lines and solos from Cuber and Gomez.

Elsewhere, a real highlight is the funky rendition of Them Changes, famously recorded by Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. Again, ballsy with brass, the theme is split between high-register trumpet, trombone and tenor sax and Cuber growling on baritone, dipping only for a funky Hammond break from the orchestra’s Simon Oslender.

Between takes of Junior Walker’s Way Back Home and the blues and gospel glueing of Honky Tonk and I Can’t Stop Loving You, the album’s only originals are Gadd’s own Lucky 13 (from his 1984 Gaddabout disc) and My Little Brother,  a disco-felt gospel tune the drummer co-wrote and performed alone with Richard Tee.

Familiar to many a Gadd fan, the latter brings the set to a fitting climax, unless you stream and you’re left with sassy swing through Ellington’s Things Ain’t What They Used to Be, reminding us these heavyweight players are as much jazzers as they are groovers.

Discography
Signed, Sealed, Delivered; Watching The River Flow; I Can’t Turn You Loose; Che Ore So; Them Changes; Way Back Home; Lucky 19; Honky Tonk/I Can’t Stop Loving You; My Little Brother; Things Ain’t What They Used To Be (62.00)
Gadd (d); Gomez (b); Cuber (bar); with Karolina Strassmayer (as); Andy Hunter (tb); Bobby Sparks II (kyb); Ludwig Nuss (tb); Paul Heller (ts); Simon Oslender (org); Bruno Muller (g). WRD studio 4, Cologne, Germany. 30 January–3 February 2022.
Leopard WDR D77107