In the liner notes, he quotes Nelson Mandela—“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world.” With that in mind, the album is subtitled A suite written for Nelson Mandela and other works. All I could think to myself was, “Man, this better not suck.”
Darren is a composer, arranger and trumpet player from Cape Town and is already a mainstay in the Atlanta Jazz scene. He is joined by an extraordinary rhythm section in pianist Kenny Banks, Jr., bassist Billy Thornton, and drummer Chris Burroughs. Four guest artists also make appearances on the album.
The album has 10 tracks with four of them composed by English. The rest are standards and classics to which English adds his own tone and touch.
The album opens with Imagine Nation, the first part of English’s three-part suite for Nelson Mandela. The solo piano introduction sets up the arrival of the rhythm section and the first tones you ever heard from Darren English’s horn. “Okay,” I thought, “this doesn’t suck at all!” I was hooked from the first few bars.
I liked the double-entendre of the song’s title. I love the subject matter. Now the music is doing exactly what I hoped it would. I thought back to Hugh Masakela’s Bring Him Back Home from 1987. English is far different from Masakela but it strikes me that Mandela is best represented by the trumpet—like a cavalry call or the sound of the Archangel’s summons. The piece, according to English, is the nation that Mandela struggled to create.
English’s tone is like crystal, clear and flawless. His phrasing is spot-on and his sound is heart-warming and pure. The rhythm section executes his desires with exactitude. Yeah, I’m in.
Body and Soul (Heyman, Sour, Eyton and Green, composers) is a beautiful example of the tone-quality of English’s trumpet but also the finesse of bassist Billy Thornton. The duet of trumpet and bass is gorgeous but the full quartet is wonderful together. There is nothing in English’s delivery that disappoints.
Dizzy Gillespie’s Bebop is as cool as it ever was. The Darren English arrangement is just as smoking and his performance reveals that he has the goods to play anything from anyone. He is playing with seasoned veterans and he makes fine use of their contributions and adds his own. Thornton and Burroughs work this number over from below and English rains down fire from on high.
English takes to the muted trumpet for What a Little Moonlight Can Do. Guest artist and Grammy-winner Carmen Bradford adds her voice to this hard-swinging number. English and Kenny Banks, Jr. get off some dazzling solos while Thornton is all over it. Carmen is a splendid voice to add to English’s horn. The bluesy close is fantastic.
Part Two of the Nelson Mandela Suite is Pledge for Peace. The song opens with the voice of Nelson Mandela, whose voice weaves in and out of the song, speaking of what it means to be a freedom fighter. English and Banks weave in and out with it like the double helix of love’s DNA. It is something wonderful.
It must be noted that English is playing without a mouthpiece. Yes, he is pushing the boundaries of the trumpet’s sound but perhaps he is recreating the struggle within South Africa who had lost their mouthpiece when Mandela was in prison. Sure, there were others like Desmond Tutu or Walter Sisulu but Mandela was the true voice.
Greg Trady’s saxophone was a brilliant addition who also worked with English and Banks, weaving in and out of the Mandela interview.
The Birth is the final movement of the Nelson Mandela Suite. It is about the birth of the new South Africa. Notice that it starts with a one-note piano repetition that is built on by the piano, then bass, then drums until joined by Greg Tardy and English in full expression. The returning motif gives image to the repetitiveness of beginnings, the simplicity of the early stages that must be developed and expanded like the music in this very piece.
Darren’s performance is sterling—moving and emotional and fully of the birth-pangs of beginnings. The piano, bass and drums are inspiring in their cohesion—like the unity sought for and found within the freedom movement in South Africa.
This is fine, narrative Jazz with a horn-player who knows how to tell the story, while using other voices to help with the telling.
Skylark (Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, composers) sees Carmen Bradford rejoining English for lovely and lyrical piece. English proves again that he is capable of creating so many different moods and expressions. Carmen’s voice is exquisite and beautiful. English’s trumpet accompaniment is delicate and fine as the trio steps lightly in their support. A thing of rare beauty and emotion.
I’ve Never Been in Love Before (Frank Loesser, composer) is a hot-swinging number with Banks opening the door for English’s muted trumpet. The bass glides in and a hard swing develops. It takes a minute before you realize that there are no drums in play. Just piano and bass accompany the horn and they supply all the propulsion necessary.
Bullet in the Gunn is a tribute to Russell Gunn with whom English plays in Gunn’s Krunk Jazz Orkestra. Greg Tardy returns with his sax and runs a dialogue with English’s trumpet. The rhythm section is on fire and they lay down the foundation upon which English and Tardy build the melodies. A riotously good time.
Ray Noble’s bop-piece Cherokee has Russell Gunn and Joe Grandsen adding their trumpets to English’s own. It, once again, shows English working tightly with the best and deserving to be there. So, you’ve three superb trumpet-players firing phrases at each other like Zeus, Thor and Jupiter all hurling thunderbolts at each other. Buckle-up.
I can only imagine that Banks, Thornton and Burroughs must have been having the times of their lives supporting this triumvirate of trumpet gods. Sometimes trading, sometimes overlapping, sometimes in unison, these three create a theatre for the proficient. It reminded me of the fun days in the early 70s when Bill Chase was a force to be reckoned with.
Imagine Nation is only the first sounds to be released from Darren English. Full of bright creativity and amazing compositions, a guy who can play like Darren English has a long and happy Jazz career. We’re so lucky.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl