It’s a trombone two-fer! Samuel Blaser and Wayne Wallace (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

The Two-fer isn’t a double celebration of a single artist, but rather of a single instrument: the trombone. I’ve always liked that warm, brassy sound with its slippery pitch variations that gives it a colorful, almost-human character. An instrument that has been there in jazz’s earliest days with Kid Ory and Jack Teagarden and through J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller. Gradually, though, the ‘bone has lost some of its burnish as a prime horn instrument in jazz; most of the stars and innovators the last fifty years or so have been the sax and trumpet players.

That said, the slide is still alive and played with boldness and creativity by latter-day artists. Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks and Roswell Rudd are among just a few who are creating and exciting with that “long trumpet.” . There are also many notable trombonists out there today making their way up the ranks, too (Michael Dease, the producer of Thomas Barber’s nice new record, is one). Here we present a couple of records by trombone players who merit more attention. Both rest on opposite sides of jazz, illuminating the flexibility and endless possibilities this brass instrument offers.

Samuel Blaser Pieces Of The Sky

Although from the same Swiss town (La Chaux-de-Fonds) as fellow trombonist Raymond Droz, Blaser is a lot more apt to be compared to Grachan Moncur III than Droz. Not full-on whack jazz, not pure hard bop, Blaser’s music resides somewhere in a wide, esoteric space in between the two. Having spent seven years at a Swiss music conservatory and several more cutting his teeth in NYC, Blaser now resides in Berlin. Last month Blaser introduced his forth album (and second album leading his quartet) Pieces Of Old Sky.

Retaining the trombone/guitar/bass/drums getup of the first quartet record 7th Heaven, but retaining only Thomas Morgan from the original lineup, Pieces Of Old Sky offers seven imaginative and unpredictable excursions into probing melodies and shifting moods. Blaser dives right into an extended piece at the beginning, the 17-minute suspended, contemplative “Pieces Of Old Sky.” Following that is my personal favorite track, “Red Hook,” which has no hook, but is a carnival ride through Dolphy-filtered Monk with a rock edge provided by Todd Neufeld’s amply amped guitar. “Choral I” and “Choral II” are brief tone ballads that reveal Blaser’s delicate side. Following more ruminative pieces “Mystical Circle” and “Mandala,” the Samuel Blaser Quartet goes a little raucous again for “Speed Game,” the freest track of the collection, and yet, contains some tightly integrated group statements.

Pieces Of Old Sky isn’t a record that’s likely to grab you on first listen, but there’s a method to Blaser’s madness that comes into sharper focus with each listen. The rapport he creates with this somewhat unusual combination of voices sets apart Samuel Blaser and his Quartet from other trombone-led small groups. His conception of sound is advanced, but rooted. That’s a pretty good way to go when traversing that nether land between hard bop and whack jazz.

Visit Blaser’s website here.

Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet ¡Bien Bien!

There’s nothing mysterious about Wayne’s Wallace’s approach to trombone-led music, it’s straight-ahead, no-nonsense Latin jazz all the way, baby! San Francisco Bay area-based Wallace has been a fixture on the scene for a while, releasing records under his own name for nearly a decade, now. However, his Latin Jazz Quintet has helped to raise his profile lately, starting with last year’s acclaimed Infinity. Wallace and his five peace band returns already with a second release ¡Bien Bien!, also from his own Patois Records.

There’s no sound more festive than Latin music and Wallace knows all shades of this wide-ranging style. To help curious listeners, he even spells out the sub-genre for each selection (“Latin Jazz,” “Bomba,” “Bolero,” “Cu-bop,” etc.). Songs have a good mixture of Wallace originals and covers. The lead-off title track sports a formidable three trombone front of Wallace and guests Dave Martell and legend Julian Priester. Pianist Murray Low is still given the prime solo slot, who provides a smooth and rhythmically-attuned performance. The band chugs along in a irresistible Jazz Messengers groove only with a heavier Cuban accent. That fine start is matched on the very next track, a most inventive arrangement of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Guest vocalists Kenny Washington and Orlando Torriente sing lyrics (added by Eddie Jefferson) that wrap around this snaky melody and scat with aplomb and fearlessness. Wallace’s re-casting of Harris’ classic as Afro-Puerto Rican Bomba is genius, and the album’s high point.

There’s other peaks, including some interpretations of Ellington tunes (an elegant “In A Sentimental Mood” and spunky “Going Up!”) and a Latin-modal exercise of Coltrane’s “Africa” that contains perhaps Wallace’s best solo trombone work of the album. Overall, ¡Bien Bien! is fun as you’d expect a Latin jazz record to be, but with enough imaginative arrangements and performances to appreciate as serious jazz, too.

Visit Wayne Wallace’s website here.

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