Carl Fontana: I Thought About You

Carl Fontana's unique post-bop personality is on full display on this track, one of the signature songs of his career. His performance of “I Thought About You” demonstrates a deeply personal and innovative approach to improvisation. His relaxed, playful trombone voice is apparent from the first presentation of the melody. He ducks out of the spotlight, however, in the second "A" of the melody, delicately improvising a countermelody behind Al Cohn's soft tenor saxophone. Fontana lets Cohn take the first solo, then comes in with his own personal approach for his choruses--always in the pocket and fully in control. He slowly works in a few impeccable double-time inflections, fitting them into the restrained tone of the solo. After a brief chorus by pianist Richard Wyands, Cohn and Fontana trade eights before sliding into a loose and interactive final presentation of the tune.

July 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Conrad Herwig: Hieroglyphica

For those who know Conrad Herwig through his work with the Latin Side recordings, Hieroglyphica shows the hip, hard-swinging jazz side of the virtuosic trombonist. This cat can hang in a way few trombonists can. From the very start of his quartet's epic 10-minute journey in and out of tonality and meter, he shows that he can do absolutely whatever he wants with his instrument. Whether it's the low multiphonic roars that begin the tune, the extreme upper-register rips or the interactive improvisation with the full rhythm section, Herwig demonstrates complete control.

The composition layers each member of the quartet in and out of the texture: Herwig spends the first minute all by himself before drummer Gene Jackson sneaks in with out-of-time cymbal rolls and tom hits. Bill Charlap and James Genus don't join the action until three minutes into the tune, but their timing is impeccable as it starts a long, burning run of Herwig's trombone. Charlap and Jackson follow with equally impressive solos before the quartet finally presents the melody--right before the tune draws to a dramatic, cacophonous close.

July 21, 2009 · 0 comments


Jack Teagarden (with Louis Armstrong): Stars Fell On Alabama

By 1946, when Jack Teagarden resurrected his career with Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, “Stars Fell On Alabama” had long been entrenched in the trombonist's repertoire. It was one of many features for Teagarden during his tenure in the Armstrong group.

The tune begins with his highly decorated trombone style, skillfully implying the melody while showing off his virtuosic technique. Teagarden weaves lines together with note values that aren't quite eighths, triplets or sixteenths, creating rhythmic tension which he resolves precisely at the end of each phrase. In the next chorus, he sings the melody in his deep, relaxed baritone. Teagarden's understated vocal style is a stark contrast to his adroit trombone playing. His intonation is excellent, and his reading conveys the restrained, nostalgic joy of the song's lyrics.

Also of note on this recording is Armstrong's work as Teagarden's temporary sideman. Even though it's his gig, Armstrong keeps the audience focused on Jack for the whole song, only complimenting him with well-placed interjections. He even lets Teagarden lead the brief, energetic buildup into his last chorus of trombone melody. Armstrong's only big moment comes at the very end of the song, when he leads the charge out of Teagarden's vocal into the last chord, which Teagarden smoothly punctuates with one last arpeggio.

July 14, 2009 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson (with Clifford Brown): Turnpike (alternate take)

June of 1953 was a very busy and prolific month for Clifford Brown. Having recently left the Blue Flames, he was working a steady summer show job with Tadd Dameron at the Club Paradise in Atlantic City. Whilst spending a great deal of time performing as a part of this revue’s band, he found opportunity to record three very important albums in his discography—his first professional jazz dates. The first was a session that he co-led with altoist Lou Donaldson for Blue Note on June 9th, promptly followed by a Prestige session with the Tadd Dameron band on June 11th. Dameron had tagged Brown as the worthy successor to ‘Fats’ Navarro a year prior, but the session he scheduled at that time didn’t materialize. The third was this session with bebop trombone great Jay Jay Johnson, tenor man Jimmy Heath and the rhythm section for the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Jimmy Heath, who hired Clifford for some of his club dates following Brown’s recovery from his 1950 car accident, remembers that on this song in particular, Johnson ended up doing multiple takes because he had developed certain ideas that he wanted to get on the record. On every take, Clifford did something fresh, creative and exciting, especially on the fast-moving cycle of fourths sequence in the tune, and the Blue Note people (namely Alfred Lion) signed him for a leader session on the spot. That session would take place a month later.

“Turnpike” is an up-tempo ‘rhythm changes’ tune which employs a 4-bar cyclic sequence during the solos on the first 4 bars of each A section. The trumpet has the lead on the introduction and melody (Heath on baritone sax), and some poor intonation and a delay in the entry of the melody might have been the reason why this didn’t end up as the master take. However, the playing is so exciting that it certainly needed to be saved. The head consists of mostly one repeated note with a few tonicizing embellishments on the A sections. Johnson improvises the bridge and my, what solid time he has! A series of two-chorus solos follows with the characteristic cycle employed on each player’s second chorus. Brownie has the first and spins out a series of shorter phrases (and a few long ones!) that are logical and balanced. He nails the cycle sequence—one of the reasons I chose the alternate was to demonstrate the mastery that the Blue Note folks recognized in Clifford. Heath is next on tenor, and plays an exciting solo, though he has a bit of an issue with the time on his initial cycle sequences. J.J. opens with a “Rhythm-a-ning” quote and performs his material with the utmost grace and ease. Lewis’s two choruses begin with a tension-building pedal point and, during the head out, a variant of the melody trades with the drums, the bass walks the bridge, and the tune winds up abruptly. This is small group jazz at its finest with Clarke and Percy Heath in outstanding form, both providing a swinging foundation.

Aside from earning Brown a Blue Note leader date, this session had a more important, farther-reaching implication. Max Roach possessed this recording and, when he was considering trumpet players for his new group in early 1954, he favored Clifford because of this album. He was enamored by Brown’s fat sound, mentioning specifically Brownie’s cup-muted work on John Lewis’s “Sketch One.” “It was like ‘Fats’ Navarro with an edge,” he recalled.

July 03, 2009 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: Misterioso

The Trombone Master is a fitting title for a record by J.J. Johnson, who has yet to be succeeded as the indubitable king of post-swing era trombone. It’s also a great starting place for those unfamiliar with his career as it features music from four sessions spanning 1957-1960. Monk’s "Misterioso" is the highlight. After duetting on the melody with Johnson, cornetist Nat Adderley catapults into a brilliant solo packed tightly with blistering double-timed runs and chunky blues licks all laid out with his familial swagger. He’s an Adderley, after all — you know he can most certainly blow the blues.

As implied by the album title, Johnson had his instrument mastered. Possessing a rich, buttery tone and complete technical command in all registers, he never flubbed a note and was astoundingly comfortable on the awkward trombone at all tempos. His immaculate phrasing was arguably his greatest asset, as evidenced in these four meticulously constructed choruses. Johnson’s solo is precise and logical, developing like a short story with each successive phrase building on the previous statement, answering its question, finishing its thought. This is jazz trombone at its finest.

May 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Scott Reeves: Incandescence

Scott Reeves is an educator and a bit of a pioneer. According to his album notes, he designed the alto valve trombone by taking a standard valve trombone and cutting off one-third of the tubing! On "Incandescence" Scott creates a moody, impressionistic sound using the lower register of his modified instrument.

With the rhythmic palette established by the repetitive piano lines of the lyrical Ridl on piano, Reeves is allowed the license to splash his tonal colors on this slowly developing theme. Joined by Perry on tenor the two seamlessly combine in a dual horn statement that establishes the pensive mood. A short but probing bass solo by McGuirk also adds another color to the canvas. Watson’s cymbals are barely heard keeping time and rightly so. Ridl’s wistful piano is delicate and sensitive. It is Reeves and Perry that gingerly pass tonal ideas between each other in a beautiful dance-like fashion that is the equivalent of two familiar ballet partners anticipating each others moves.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Aaron J. Johnson: Shamba

This slow-simmered, down-home blues starts with a bellowing bass line and is chock full of flavor and soul. It’s good to hear a front line of saxophone and trombone tonally combining so nicely to state a unified theme. Trombonist Johnson and tenor saxophonist Washington set out the melody line in a sparse, mournful statement that drips with laid back hurt.

Pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs plays behind a perfectly laid out rhythmic backdrop set up by the tasteful drums of Victor Lewis and the steady bass of Robert Sabin. Gumbs tickles the blues from his keyboard with a gentle attack that wanders delightfully through the progression delivering a marvelous sense of feel and time especially at the closing of his solo.

Johnson’s turn is understated and purrs along with the hum of a powerful Peterbilt, unassuming yet muscular. He posses a throaty enjoyable tone that is soulful but disappointingly he never lets loose on this solo. Conversely, Salim Washington comes out with a strong tenor sound. His phrasing brings to mind Grover Washington at his best. Gumbs, Lewis and Sabin continue to hold it all together with tasty flourishes to the faded ending. All in all this piece saunters through your head and has you keeping the beat in time to its laid back infectious groove.

March 23, 2009 · 0 comments


Lettuce: Superfred

"Blow me some Trane, brother!" So said the Hardest Working Man in Show Business to tenorman Robert McCollough in his 1970 hit single, "Super Bad." James Brown had always reached across the aisle to tap into the currents of jazz and by this time had set the soul music world on its derriere by throwing the almighty backbeat under the bus in favor of The One. This concept, which defied years of rhythmic emphasis on the sacred, rim shot-enhanced two and four, would alter the structure of R&B forever. With his 3-part 45 release, Brown had settled the groove into an intense, driving pulse, fueled by the well-oiled Bootsy Collins funk machine.

The crack East Coast-based funk group Lettuce has succeeded in capturing the essence of the original, without losing any of its fire. But in place of the good-God yowlin' Godfather, they offer the irrepressible trombone of Fred Wesley, who does no backsliding here; his lines fit snugly over the precision funk vamp with an almost percussive attack before trading fours in a compelling dialogue with tenorman Sam Kininger. Super Fred may not be "blowing some Trane," but he's definitely on the right track.

March 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Aaron J. Johnson: Big Fun Blues

With Victor Lewis nailing down what seems like a second-line groove, you might think that "Big Fun Blues" is headed toward Mardi Gras. Maybe hard bop by way of New Orleans is more like it. With many a chorus full of solos, the chords are celebrated in what at first seems like the modern mode. Lewis breaks away from that tasty shuffle to aid in Aaron J. Johnson's trombone flight, and we're at the Blue Note. But then that groove is back as bassist Robert Sabin steps to center stage. After a restatement of the head, a sly quote from "Down by the Riverside" confirms that these guys just want to have fun. Big fun.

March 10, 2009 · 0 comments


Grachan Moncur III: Thandiwa

The only chord change-based tune on an album of otherwise free-form pieces, "Thandiwa" is an angular waltz made up of 4-bar phrases in AABB form. Of the four solos, the leader's is, oddly enough, the shortest and most tentative. Shorter stretches out, exploring the tune from every angle, developing short motives, toying with the rhythms, and dissecting the changes before winding things up with some quiet sheets of sound. It's nice to be reminded of how great Herbie Hancock sounded on a real piano and in the company of his peers. Though the personnel consists of 3/5 of the Miles Davis Quintet at the time, Moncur's music puts things into an entirely different sound world.

January 29, 2009 · 0 comments


Rod Levitt: Holler

Rod Levitt was a trombonist and composer-arranger whose playing and writing struck a near-perfect balance between versatility and highly personal expression. As a player he is best remembered for his tenure in Dizzy's mid-'50s big band, and he played bass trombone on several notable Gil Evans sessions including New Bottle, Old Wine and the April 1959 CBS-TV program featuring Miles Davis. He went on to become a successful writer of music for radio and TV commercials. Despite the bop credentials listed above, his playing was strongly influenced by Tricky Sam Nanton and Lawrence Brown, and he always rejoiced in the fact that the trombone is the only horn that has a slide. (Phil Woods called him "Tailgate Levitt.")

Full Disclosure: I had the pleasure of playing in this group for the last several years of its existence, and like everyone who knew him, I thought Rod Levitt was one of the kindest, most contagiously positive people on the planet.

This distinctive octet originated as a rehearsal band formed by Levitt so that he and several other musicians could maintain their chops and relieve the soul-killing boredom brought about while working five or six shows a day at Radio City Music Hall back when it was a year-round gig. The instrumentation of this group was and still is common among groups seeking a middle ground between a small group and a big band, and many writers for such ensembles tend to use a more or less standardized series of techniques to give the illusion of a larger band. For a number of reasons, including Rod's skillful use of brass mutes and woodwind doubles combined with his seemingly endless resourcefulness as a composer, this octet sounds like no other. Another distinguishing characteristic of Rod's playing and writing was his exuberant sense of humor.

"Holler" begins with Rod's slippery horn wailing over an eerie atonal-sounding background that soon gives way to the Dukish main theme. From then on, it's all about the blues, in a variety of shapes and sizes with especially distinctive solos by Ericson and Johnson. Gene Allen's solo is followed by a beautifully handled transition into half-time for the bass and piano solos. The piece ends as it began with Rod's trombone hollering in the spirit of the blues over the mysterious opening ostinato figure. This group recorded several excellent albums for RCA Victor during the '60s, but none has been reissued on CD.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Wayne Wallace: Serpentine Fire

I hate to admit it, but I totally missed the Earth, Wind & Fire boat back in the day. Long before I became a jazz snob, I was a definite rock snob. My circle of friends rocked! Why would anybody voluntarily listen to horns when electric guitar was all you needed? Earth, Wind & Fire? Sure, I had a few friends who owned their greatest hits record, but I secretly suspected that had something to do with their girlfriends – a sort of musical/hormonal calculus. Well, everybody has to grow up sooner or later. My moment probably came with either my first Southside Johnny or Tower of Power record. In any event, this high-energy, Latin-ized version of "Serpentine Fire" is a real treat, reminding me of what fun it was to realize that not all songs had to sound like jackhammers gone medieval. Spiky horns, hip vocals, funky bass and guitar, and an insistent and driven piano give the piece huge inertia. There's something for both the rock and jazz snob here.

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Jay T. Vonada: Mina

There's something reassuring about sitting down to the sounds of a nice, warm horn spinning up a bluesy conversation over the top of its sonic cohorts. So it is with Jay T. Vonada's trombone. He tells his story over the soulful backdrop of the B-3 sounds of Adam Kurland and the ultra-swinging bass of Jacob Hibel. "Mina" reminds me of why I like to pull out my Jimmy McGriff and Wes Montgomery trio records – the relatively simple blues structures open up the realm of harmonic possibilities while simultaneously giving a little musical comfort food. What could possibly be wrong with that?

October 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Cantrall: Torrent

This composition illustrates just how much creative juice can be extracted from a simple set of chord changes. "Torrent" has its structure introduced by Gerald Cannon's bass, laying down a simple rising/falling motif. Like many famous modal pieces (thanks Miles & Mr. Coltrane), much of the power derives from how the musicians draw color and shape from the existing contours. After the horns play the head, saxophone, trombone and trumpet solos follow, each amping up the tension, egged on by Rick Germanson's terrific comping at the piano. Particularly effective is trumpeter Ryan Kisor, especially when the rhythm section temporarily changes up, dropping in a nice blues-walk segment. As Kisor's last notes fall away, Montez Coleman's drum break forces extra momentum onto the head's eventual restatement. Simple, but effective.

October 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Jonathan Voltzok: Shawnuff'

It would be a huge mistake to try to one-up Diz & Bird. Thankfully, most jazz musicians have a lot more sense than that. On "Shawnuff'," Jonathan Voltzok pays tribute to the Gillespie/Parker classic "Shaw 'Nuff" by (aside from slightly altering its name) taking those incredible unison lines and rendering them with trombones. Slide Hampton, having several Gillespie-related tribute records on his résumé, pushes Voltzok into the 'bone stratosphere. Voltzok's rhythm section adds to the action, particularly pianist Aaron Goldberg, who comps with abandon and tosses in some great accents just when the horns are changing direction. It's says a lot about a composition when, after all these years, musicians can unearth new gems from such well-trod ground.

September 28, 2008 · 0 comments


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