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Jazz trumpeter Darren English imagines hope in debut album “Imagine Nation”, with tributes to Nelson Mandela

Capetownian trumpeter, Darren English, kicks off his debut album by Hot Shoe Records (2016) with an original, “Imagine Nation”, a call to youth to make a better day! The first of a three part suite, it’s a melodic song mostly in the minor keys, and shows Darren’s wide range of tones on his trumpet.

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Nostalgically, I still  ‘imagine’ those Monday night jazz jam sessions at Cape Town’s Swingers when 15 year old Darren, wearing his Beatles hairdo, and always accompanied by his indefatigably supportive father, Trevor,  would silence the packed crowd by his trumpet wizardry. We knew we had another South African catch of a musician who would go places. Indeed he has, 11 years later, cutting this debut album, after having finished his Master’s degree at Georgia State University in Atlanta where he continues to teach jazz studies and perform with various groups in USA. Hence, my affectionate ‘Darren’ reference.

“Body and Soul” presents a rather interesting start with a duo between a bowed double bass and Darren’s muted trumpet. It seems he has deliberately made his trumpet sound flat, confident, no frills technique, no vibratos. A simple rendition of an ole classic.

Smooth runs characterize Darren’s offerings as he faultlessly scales his instrument’s prowess with dignity and pureness. You’d think he’s been playing for decades!

The faster paced “Bebop”, a Dizzy Gillespie classic, displays a fluid trumpet with clean runs and boppish attitude. Drums and bass click away, heralding Darren’s pace, with a lovely solo by bassist Billy Thorton. The even faster paced “What a Little Moonlight Can Do’ introduces Grammy song lark, Atlanta-based Carmen Bradford, who shows off her impressive credentials behind her bebop vocals. I hesitate to compare such uniqueness with other greats, but I must say, her scat, tonation, and jazzy pitch brings about memories of Carmen McRae and Nancy Wilson for me. Her mood control in “Skylark” excelled.

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The album mellows its pace with a moving and emotional presentation of Nelson Mandela’s wise words from radio interviews, as he brought South Africa’s democracy forward, with advice. ‘Pledge for Peace’, a second Darren original as part of the ‘Imagine Nation’ theme, supports imagining a nation leading a peaceful parade towards responsible freedoms. This song carefully mixes interviews with interplays between trumpet and tenor sax, all which fill the sound space with sunshine and hope, but with caution.

Midway in the album is the third song of the ‘Imagine Nation’ theme, “The Birth” which appropriately describes Darren’s longing for a new nation free of the apartheid past. A long piece, almost 12 minutes, it contains impressive trumpet runs, syncopation with rhythmic gaps of sound, off beats, behind beats, etc. Greg Tardy’s tenor sax is electric. This piece is full of conversation, dipping a lot into fast bebop, then softer slower ballad moods punctuated with horn dialogues….signifying no births are ‘easy’ or smooth. A very ambitious original.

Kenny Banks, Jr’s piano in the Frank Loesser song, “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”, provides classic bebop thrills along side Darren’s muted and even accompaniment . This duo piece is a real hit in the album!

“Bullet in the Gunn”, another original and a tribute to another trumpet mentor, Russsell Gunn, features blistering trade-offs between Darren’s trumpet and the wailing sax of Greg Tardy in occasionally frantic conversations.

The last track, “Cherokee”, presents fast runs by each musician, feasting on and sparring with each other’s energies, but they tended to blend into one men-otanous sound piece for me. I’m not one for blaring horns, but I felt these frantic snorts turned a reputable classic into a blah blah race run. On the other hand, having heard Joe Gransden’s trumpet at jazz jams in Atlanta several years ago, which the younger Darren also attended, it is obvious that Gransden’s style and wit has firmly rubbed off onto Darren’s technique. The two men simply gel and Darren knows it, and is proud to have such a mentor.

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Darren English remains a formidable ‘young gun’ far beyond just South Africa’s jazz scene, and has been blessed with craft and skills to carry him holistically into a successful future. I am also very proud to say that Darren’s success carries with it a notable humility, yet adventure, in learning to be better. Just better! Watch his space!

See my December 2014 blurb: http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2014/12/04/carol-martin-chat-with-cape-jazz-trumpeter-darren-english/
The album features: Darren English (tpt); Kenny Banks Jr. (pno); Billy Thornton (bs); Chris Burroughs (dms) + Carmen Bradford (vcl); Greg Tardy (tenor sax); Russell Gunn (tpt); Joe Gransden (tpt).

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