J.J. Johnson: El Camino Real

J.J. Johnson will forever be remembered as the most influential trombonist in jazz from the late 1940s onward. His pioneering work in transcending the trombone's technical limitations to create a modern jazz style on the instrument, combined with the huge advances in technique and flexibility by many of his successors, has led many people to associate Johnson with a rapid-fire machinegun-like approach to the horn that is not really a characteristic of his best playing. The fact is that J.J.'s mature playing was always lyrical, swinging and to the point. He was a fine composer and arranger as well, and his style and technique as a writer evolved throughout his career.

The first recorded example of his large ensemble writing to appear on record was his original "Rambo" done by the Basie band in 1946. He went on to write several excellent extended jazz works, including "Poem for Brass" and the album-length Perceptions for Dizzy Gillespie.

"El Camino Real" showcases Johnson's playing at its lyrical best. His trombone carries the lion's share of the thematic material, with the band supplying constantly shifting background textures and transitional material. The piece strikes a perfect balance between providing a showcase for J.J. as soloist and making the ensemble an equal partner in the total musical experience. Every J.J. Johnson record is a jazz trombone clinic, but this track is also a living textbook for composers and arrangers in the art of constructing a piece around a jazz soloist.

September 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Marshall Gilkes: Lost Words

When reading this you need to know that this is my second review of a trombonist's CD that I am writing today – the other being my take on Bill Cantrall's "Axiom." That doesn't happen too often, believe me.

Marshall Gilkes is a Julliard graduate and has played in Billy Cobham's band. His compositions and playing are clear evidence of a high skill level and understanding of his art. An introspective Jon Cowherd piano prologue leads us into the quietly lilting melody of "Lost Words." Gilkes takes the lead from the outset as he introduces the theme and solos over the rhythm section. His playing is quite fluid. He is followed by an equally pleasing Michael Rodriguez trumpet solo. The tune maintains its pleasant allure to its end. It is fine music. Though there is no new ground being broken here, it isn't every day you hear a trombonist with enough compositional talent and superior chops to maintain interest over the length of an entire album. That is just the way it is. Gilkes got my attention and maintained it. Today I was lucky enough to hear two fine trombone players. Bring it on!

September 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Marshall Gilkes: The Crossover

The contrast between this track's introduction ("Crossover Intro") and body couldn't be more stark. For a little over two minutes, leader Marshall Gilkes explores various textures and wide-ranging melodies (I love solo trombone, with notes so low you can almost see them), with shadows of themes to come entering and leaving. When we slide into "The Crossover" proper, Gilkes cranks up the swing and we're off. The way the changes flow is very reminiscent of "Giant Steps." What sets the track apart from a Young Lions-type thing is the cool use of unison lines – this is done to introduce the first solo segment and then again after Jon Cowherd's piano solo, this time revisiting Gilkes's opening theme before the close. All told, a really well-constructed composition that makes great use of melodic contour, tension and unbridled swing.

September 04, 2008 · 1 comment


Bill Cantrall: Axiom

Axiom is trombonist/composer Bill Cantrall's first release as leader. The album's title cut combines the sounds of Maiden Voyage-era Herbie Hancock with that of Crosswinds-era Billy Cobham, which featured trombonist Garnett Brown and trumpeter Randy Brecker. That is a good thing. Pianist Germanson and trumpeter Ryan Kisor are among the best plying the trade these days. As a bonus we also hear some impressive sax playing from Sherman Irby and Stacy Dillard in the tune's forward-moving midsection. (It is unclear from the liner notes if both play on the tune. They could be in the mix. At any rate, it is Irby who takes the solo.) Bassist Cannon and drummer Montez Coleman are a top-notch rhythm section as well. Composer Cantrall waits until late in the game to take his star turn. The '60s and '70s influences aside, "Axiom," the tune and the album, is finely crafted modern jazz providing plenty of improvisational space for these talented musicians to do their thing.

September 03, 2008 · 0 comments


Wayne Wallace: Fascinating Rhythm

San Francisco native Wayne Wallace continues to impress with his mastery of the Afro-Cuban idiom. His 2007 release The Reckless Search for Beauty was one of the neglected gems of the year, and his follow-up The Nature of the Beat is another small-label project that deserves to find a wider audience. This Gershwin tune is an unlikely candidate for Latin treatment -- its syncopated melody line is built on a rhythmic displacement that is more suited to prewar New York stylings than clave. But Wallace pulls out all the stops in giving a new flavor to this old song, crafting a crisp arrangement and even adding lead and background vocals in Spanish. Fascinating indeed!

August 18, 2008 · 1 comment


J.J. Johnson: Winter's Waif

One of two Gary McFarland contributions to this album, "Winter's Waif" shows a tougher side of bossa nova. And a darker side, as the title would lead one to expect. After a solo alto flute introduction (by Estrin?), J.J. Johnson sets up the melody and then soars over an extended vamp by the band. An eat-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out rendition.

July 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Don Immel: Long Way Home

This title track to trombonist Immel's Long Way Home CD captures a dreamy film noir quality. Immel has a deep background in classical music and clearly knows the jazz vocabulary, but he might want to consider a career shift to scoring soundtracks. His music evokes potent visual imagery and possesses a persuasive narrative quality. I wish the rhythms here were a little more potent. This artist might be better served by a setting that was not quite so smooth-jazz-ish. But Immel's trombone playing is first rate, and is especially noteworthy for his warm, full tone and great phrasing. Don't be surprised to hear this track on the radio.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments


Giants of Jazz: Lover Man

I chose this cut to review from this all-star gathering because it features Kai Winding's trombone exclusively. It isn't very often one gets to write about a trombone fronting a performance. This is especially true when the band is made up of the jazz legends this touring band was.

In the liner notes, producer George Wein talks openly of the difficulties of getting this band of giants together and its uneven performances over the course of two years. In my opinion, this band does suffer from what I call "too many all-star cooks." Wein alludes to this in his comments about Thelonious Mink not taking any solos. When you have so many great players around, you tend to pass the ball rather than take the shot. All that said, even these guys' passes are beautiful to behold.

Trombonist Winding plays the ballad "Lover Man" with the skill and taste of someone who intimately knows music and the emotions connected with it. Sparse accompaniment is offered, but Winding doesn't need any more help to get his point across. The trombone in the hands of such past and present players as Winding, J.J. Johnson and Hal Crook can be as expressive an instrument as any other. To hear it beautifully played is just further proof positive.

May 29, 2008 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: My Funny Valentine

The great trombonist J.J. Johnson's engagement at New York's Village Vanguard in July 1988 was a major jazz event. Finally he was returning to active touring with a working band after nearly two decades in Hollywood, primarily writing for film and television. Those in attendance who heard him play "My Funny Valentine" may have thought back to his 1957 recording of it with Stan Getz, but there is really no comparison. While in 1957 Johnson's boppish improvisation exhibited a staccato, wide-ranging and multi-noted attack, in 1988 Johnson delves into trombone's lower depths and dwells there for the duration. He plays the theme in a deliberate, halting fashion, extending each deep note with astonishing tonal control, hitting some notes with a timbre that resembles that of a foghorn at sea. His embellishments and progressions are fresh, dramatic and occasionally eerie. He concludes with an emotionally searing coda-like summation, rather than a conventional reprise. A true masterpiece, and a bold declaration by J.J. that he was back stronger than ever.

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Stan Getz & J.J. Johnson: My Funny Valentine

Back in the 1950s, some still thought that Stan Getz was a lightweight "cool school" player, and that J.J. Johnson's incredible fluidity could only mean that he, like Bob Brookmeyer, played a valve trombone. Those so misguided would have seen and heard differently if they had attended this 1957 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Chicago.

"My Funny Valentine" starts with Getz and Johnson engaging in inventive counterpoint, while alternating on the theme. Getz has the first solo, basically silky smooth of tone, but deceptively so as his swift boppish runs are executed with an added bite. As Brown's resonant and forceful bassline propels him along, Getz uses exclamatory riffs, jabbing lower-register notes, and subtle alterations of reiterated phrases to flesh out a masterfully structured improvisation. Johnson's solo has a noticeably similar construction, also effectively relying on variations to repeated phrases. With a distinctive buzz to his timbre, as well as his utilization of expressive slurs and blats for coloration, Johnson's overall combination of power, dexterity and creativity is lethal. Getz and Johnson then improvise once again in tandem, a delightful intertwining that gradually returns to the melody and finally to a declarative ending evocative of a bugle call.

May 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Curtis Fuller: What Is This Thing Called Love

Curtis Fuller was the first and longest standing trombonist featured in the Jazz Messengers, and was a member of some of that band's most famous front lines. He shared the bandstand most notably with Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter on recordings such as Mosaic, Buhaina's Delight, Caravan and 3 Blind Mice Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. On this pre-Messengers track, Fuller and Hank Jones overshadow Red Kyner and the solid yet imperfect Latin-to-swing transitions by the rhythm section over the head of this classic tune. A fine Doug Watkins solo is answered by Fuller's brief yet exceptional second improvised statement at the tune's conclusion.

March 06, 2008 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: Carolyn (In the Morning)

In this bookend piece that both starts the album Heroes and ends it with a piece appropriately titled "Carolyn (In the Evening)," the trombonist who many feel was the finest to ever play the instrument showcases his compositional and leadership skills. While Johnson's playing is more featured in pieces like "Ten-85" or the equally swinging "In Walked Wayne," it is this song that embodies his soul as a songwriter. Dedicated to his second wife, it's a delicate and poignant jazz waltz that embodies the subtle brilliance of this master musician. While J.J. plays a subdued role on this track, the song showcases the fine talents of Dan Faulk on tenor sax and Renee Rosnes on piano, all behind the brilliantly underplayed work of drummer Victor Lewis and the effective Rufus Reid on bass. This is at once an old master—Johnson was 72 when he recorded this—taking younger, promising artists under his wing in the fine tradition of Art Blakey and Miles Davis, and letting them express their artistry through a vehicle that allows for much feeling. Rosnes is particularly effective as she draws a beautifully emotional response from her cascading keyboard work. Lewis's magically effective stick and cymbal work make the song immediately identifiable and command repeat playing. This is an underrated performance from a group that created a wonderfully enduring piece of music.

January 31, 2008 · 0 comments


Count Basie (featuring J.J. Johnson): Rambo

J.J. Johnson was a promising young trombonist/arranger when he left the Benny Carter band and joined up with the Count in May 1945. Only two recordings with Basie have solo statements by Johnson, "The King" and the track described here. "Rambo" did not remain in the book, and was not issued as a single in the United States at the time, but it has been reissued frequently over the years and has even been covered by The Manhattan Transfer. The composition itself is a good one, with a terrific written half-chorus for the saxophones, and good solos by Johnson, Jacquet and Edison.

January 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Stan Kenton: Frank Speaking

By 1952, Kenton was leading an ensemble called “New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm” and continued to attract excellent soloists and composers. Russo was the chief composer/arranger, although Gerry Mulligan and Johnny Richards contributed some important music to the band during this period. Russo was known for his deep, brooding studies for the orchestra, but he could write upbeat, swinging pieces as well, as shown by this feature for Rosolino, which starts off in medium tempo and then suddenly takes off in high gear with the soloist roaring.

January 09, 2008 · 0 comments


J.J. Johnson: What's New

Rightly renowned for his incomparable technique, J.J. Johnson is often wrongly overlooked as a balladeer. Here, using a cup mute, J.J. displays a tonal purity matched by no other jazz trombonist, and a lyricism second to none. J.J. often expressed admiration for Billie Holiday, whose haunting 1955 recording of this song may be reflected in J.J.'s own heartfelt soliloquy two years later. Johnson, though, was always his own man, and this urbane interpretation is in no way derivative. With sensitive support from a stellar cast, J.J. justifies the title of Columbia's compilation: not "A" trombone master, but The Trombone Master.

December 05, 2007 · 0 comments


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