Jazz Album Reviews: Trombone Madness
By Allen Michie
Taking both of these new releases together should satisfy the ‘bones jones of just about any jazz fan.
Kemet [The Black Land], Javier Nero Jazz Orchestra (Outside In Music)
Sixty and Still Cookin’, The Las Vegas Boneheads (Curt Miller Music)
Seventy-six trombones for this review! Well, minus 63 to get technical about it, but 13 trombones are still plenty. There are five trombones in the fine Javier Nero Jazz Orchestra, including the leader himself, and there are eight trombones mixing it up in the joyous Las Vegas Boneheads. Taking both of their new releases together should satisfy the ‘bones jones of just about any jazz fan.
Javier Nero is a young, talented, committed artist with both roots and ambition. He began racking up wins in student trombone competitions, soon landing the lead trombone position in the U.S. Army’s Army Blues big band (no one is derelict of duty in that outfit, I can assure you). Since then, he’s played with big bands, pit bands, symphony orchestras, and combos mostly in Florida and Washington, D.C. He leads the Javier Nero Jazz Orchestra as a vehicle for his own compositions and arrangements, and their second album, Kemet [The Black Land], has just been released.
It’s always good to hear a big band with a fresh perspective and new material. Nero is a traditionalist — nothing pushing the envelope too hard here — but he’s a modernist arranger who strikes a balance between the impressionistic musical colors of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the swinging section work of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. His band is tight and well-rehearsed, but it’s not sanitized either. Kemet [The Black Land] sounds like a group of human beings making music together, not a bunch of synthesizer patches.
Nero himself has a polished, warm, and rich sound on the trombone, augmented here by excellent recording and production. He plays clean and precise, not blurry or slippery, as a section-leading big band trombonist learns to do.
The first track, “The Blues Reincarnated,” features guest Warren Wolf on vibraphone. Why do blues always sound so good on the vibes, an instrument where you can’t bend notes? Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson could wail on the blues, and so does Wolf. The arrangement is straightforward and uncluttered, with a rock beat that brings to mind the Buddy Rich band of the early ’80s. “Time” complicates things with a fast tempo in a nice swaying groove. The arrangement builds and fades effectively behind guest Sean Jones on trumpet, sounding like Woody Shaw. Drummer Kyle Swan threads together multiple superimposed time signatures.
No one listens to CDs for the song titles, but some of these had me scratching my head. “Reflections on the Dark, Tranquil Water” sounds more like a brisk sailboat ride on a bright sunny day. The breezy wordless vocals from Danielle Wertz recall Luciana Souza’s work with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. There’s a solo piano interlude I’m not too sure about, but it sets up an elegant trombone solo from Nero. Another random title is “Discord,” which offers a perfectly non-discordant groove, a bit like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” There’s a swinging unison passage with wordless vocals, tenor sax, and piano for a contemporary Ellingtonian touch.
“Nostalgic Haiku” (from a random phrase generator?) features Randy Brecker on trumpet, who has certainly inherited his brother’s mantel as jazz’s most omnipresent (and always welcome!) guest soloist. He’s instantly recognizable, as was brother Michael, and he winds his way around the changes while building phrases that keep looking around the corner to the resolutions they’ll make in the harmonies coming up. It’s an easy, enjoyable jazz/rock groove, and the textures shift according to the needs of the different soloists (the mark of a sensitive arranger). Something similar happens on the ballad “Just Let Go,” a feature for Nero on trombone, with the orchestra fading in, building, and fading out again to highlight the melody and the melodic approach to the solo.
A standout track on the album is the title tune, “Kemet [The Black Land],” a tribute to the highly advanced ancient Egyptian civilization seen here as a model for music at the highest levels. “Like the processes of alchemy, and chemistry, the Kemetic culture was one that mixed with and freely shared ideas and information in an effort to create a finer outcome for all those involved in the process,” Nero writes in the liner notes. “What better art form than music is there to exemplify the ideas of mixture and the fusion of cultures?” The arrangement starts with hand claps and a complex drum rhythm, followed by wordless vocals and a lighter drum texture, all suggesting the opening to Pat Metheny’s “First Circle” (a very high compliment). It is a fine arranger’s touch to put the wordless vocal in unison with the vibes — it’s a beautiful sound. The chattering drums, always alert, capture some of the Kemetic exoticism and multicultural rhythms. Michael Kramer’s electric guitar builds tension toward the grand conclusion, reminding me a bit of the fantastic “Reza” from Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth Big Band.
Wrapping things up are the catchy “One Day,” a waltz with chipper lyrics about living in harmony. There’s a bird-like (as in actual avian) flute solo from Daniel Dickinson, and the effective layering of vocals deepens the song and builds it into something more substantial than you would think at first. Kemet [The Black Land] ends with “Jam #3 (in C# Major).” (Seriously dude, you did that to your band? C# Major, with seven sharps?) At over 12 minutes it is the longest track, but there’s nothing loose and unstructured about this jam session. It’s punchier than the other performances with an angular arrangement that smooths out for the trombone solo. Guest alto saxophonist Tim Green’s excellent solo is more in sync with the angular bop-rock feel of the arrangement, however. There’s a tiny bit of collective improvisation at the end, as the band rewards itself for making it through this long and difficult chart!
There’s more than one way to become a professional jazz musician. The new way is Nero’s: attend fine music schools (Julliard, University of Miami), enter competitions, write for top bands, and win commissions. The old way is by apprentice work, building local musical connections, gigging where you can in pick-up bands and pit orchestras, and proving you can hang with the masters while getting your butt kicked in late-night jam sessions.
The Las Vegas Boneheads have been together in various combinations for 60 years. They started in 1962 as a rehearsal band for trombonists in Las Vegas needing an outlet to blow after their constrictive regular show gigs. It became a kind of trombonists’ support group for those fresh off a Paul Anka or Wayne Newton gig. Carl Fontana, Bill Harris, Charlie Loper, Archie LeCoque, Jimmy Trimble, and other famous trombonists would drop in. The group disbanded in the mid-’80s and was revived in 2011. Surprisingly, Sixty and Still Cookin’ is only their second album.
The group is led by Curt Miller, who joined the group in 1978. There are five trombone soloists, and two bass trombones for low-end support (if you have a sub-woofer, turn it up a few notches and enjoy the punch from those two fat bass trombones). There are fine guest appearances by trombonist Andy Martin, but they seem kind of redundant.
Like the Javier Nero album, this one is full of bright music and sharp session work. It’s less exploratory and multicultural than Nero’s disc, but there’s an added sense of fun and camaraderie. Granted, a certain sameness sets in after a while following a succession of swinging solos from various combinations of the trombone soloists. The album could perhaps do with a few more piano, guitar, or bass features to break it up (was Randy Brecker not available?). You may like it better on shuffle play alongside a few other less brassy albums.
You could spend time trying to tell all six trombonists apart and identifying their different styles, but it’s more enjoyable to just let all that warm tromboney goodness just wash over you. They are all solid swing/bop players with plenty of clean pit band chops. When they play solos back-to-back, you can hear clear differences in their tones and phrasing but, melodically and harmonically, all the soloists are on the same page. As with Nero, the playing is free of cheeseball trombone effects. There are no plungers, no dragging around, no gutbucket, no fancy flutter-tonguing, and no slide tricks — just fine mainstream jazz playing from experienced pros who would make J.J. Johnson or Kai Winding proud.
There’s plenty of rhythmic variety. The album starts out with a fast bop number over rhythm changes, “Al Cohn Tune.” It’s followed by Lee Morgan’s “Ceora,” a Latin ballad, then an up-tempo swinging “Samba Deez Bones.” I don’t know why trombones always sound so good on sambas. This performance is given just the right amount of reverb to suggest we are hearing a brass choir, though it doesn’t take itself terribly seriously.
“Home Again” first supplies a pillowy cushion of unaccompanied brass for the melody statement and then opens into another samba. There’s a guest solo from trombonist Andy Martin, which is fine, but he plays pretty much the same way as the others. Why not just call him part of the band? He’s on three of the 10 tracks. The take on the standard “Skylark” shows how a trombone section can also create a bit of Muzak. Perhaps this track is a tip of the hat to the smooth Buddy Morrow big band from the ’50s. There’s no harm done with this bag of cotton candy, however. It’s hard to ruin this beautiful melody. You’ll quickly be distracted by the next cut, “The Nervous Nellie,” a snappy swinger with excellent harmonization in the arrangement, as there is throughout the disk. Here, and on the standard “I Thought About You,” my imagination starts to hear the rest of an absent big band — the saxophone and trumpet sections seem somehow magically embedded in the range of the multiple trombones. The band is tightly rehearsed, and everyone phrases together precisely.
This expertly recorded album ends with two barnstorming chop busters, especially impressive for trombones, where much depends on shifting your embouchure minutely and rapidly while moving the slide to precisely where it needs to be every second. Two of the greatest poser-weedouts in jazz jam session history are “Cherokee” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and both are here. The latter is done with a medium-tempo rock beat. There’s great playing from everyone, but I can’t say the rhythmic change does the piece any favors. It drags, and the rhythm section doesn’t seem to feel quite at home. No doubt the stiffer rhythm makes this set of notoriously knotty chord changes a tiny bit easier to navigate, so I can’t begrudge them that. Dig the unison soli for a chorus.
Slide these discs into your player and enjoy multiple generations of trombonists keeping the art alive and vibrant.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He’s the administrator of the Jazztodon.com instance on Mastodon and the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook.