What’s Not to Love About the Trombone?

There was a time when jazz trombonists like Glenn Miller were mega-stars. Not so today, but talents like those of Ryan Keberle and Joe Fiedler make the case that they should be.
Joe Fiedler's Big Sackbut
Sackbut Stomp
Multiphonics Music

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In the days when jazz — or, to be fair, its mild form during the ’30s and ’40s, “swing” — was most popular, its biggest stars were guys who played the clarinet and the trombone. Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey were stars. Even, well, almost sex symbols. Trombonist Glenn Miller was even bigger still and became the subject of a huge Hollywood biopic starring James Stewart in 1954—after he died in a plane crash during World War II on his way to play for troops.

All these guys were spectacle-wearing jazz musicians. And Dorsey and Miller played the slide trombone, an instrument so uncool today that even the era’s most remarkable players just shake their head about it. Go figure.

Trumpets remain sleek and heraldic. They shout and cry. Saxophones are sexy for some reason. They slink and slide and coo around the corners of even pop songs.

But the trombone — a paragon of “smooth” when Dorsey played — has come to seem unwieldy or bumbling, brusque or over-brassy. And that is wrong, wrong, wrong!

A Few Reasons to Believe in 21st Century Jazz Trombone

The lineage of the jazz trombone is rich and beyond this short column. In New Orleans jazz, it was a critical part of the contrapuntal frontline that typically featured trumpet, clarinet, and trombone in dynamic dialogue. The pitch-sliding antics of the “tailgate” trombonists were gorgeous and artful. “Kid” Ory played famously with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and he was arguably the first of the instrument’s masters — someone who lifted the instrument into the beginnings of virtuosity.

The first trombone star in jazz was the dapper and innovative Jack Teagarden, a self-taught Texan who made the horn sing well beyond the New Orleans tailgate style. He sang too, swung like crazy, understood the blues, but also was creamy enough to play with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra during its heyday. His time in Armstrong’s All-Stars group from 1948 to 1951 was particularly fruitful, leading to a solo career of legend. Of course, the big bands of the swing era were nothing without their trombones, and the exquisite players in Ellington’s band alone are a treasure trove of beauty and invention: Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, Juan Tizol, Britt Woodman, oh yeah.

When bebop revolutionized jazz with faster tempos and more complex rhythms and harmonies, the story goes, the trombonists got weeded out by the relative inflexibility of their horns. Really? There wasn’t a more precise or flexible bopper than J.J. Johnson, and Kai Winding was as fluid as a mountain stream. Players of the ’60s hard bop and free scenes such as Curtis Fuller, Grachan Moncur III, and Julien Priester could be magicians. And free jazz produced a wealth of great players — George Lewis, Ray Anderson, and Roswell Rudd being my favorites.

So, man, don’t claim that bop killed the sweet sliding horn. But who is keeping it relevant today?

I’ll make a quick case for three players I love and tell you more about the third, who is maybe the least well-known.

Robin Eubanks

Robin Eubanks is one of the most gifted instrumentalists you can imagine. In my last conversation with the legendary jazz DJ Ed Beach (from New York’s long-lost WRVR), he could not stop raving about Eubanks after hearing him play with Dave Holland’s band. “That trombonist,” Beach told me, “is the most astonishing I’ve ever heard, bar none. And I heard them all back in the day, in New York. He played things on his horn that no one has ever played before.”

Eubanks has played with Holland, sure, but he also was a key early member of Steve Coleman’s M-Base collective. His own records for JMT in the ’80s and ’90s were nothing less than sterling (check out the date Dedications, co-led with another amazing trombone player, Steve Turre), and he’s still doing interesting stuff. Klassik Rock Vol. 1 (1984) came out last year to tepid response from Downbeat and some other outlets, but it was joyous and cool: a collection of Led Zep tunes, soul tunes, originals, all twisted around impossible time signatures and driving rhythms.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews

If there is a trombone star today — a player who might be capable of drawing a swoon with his slide (and his smile) — it’s Troy Andrews. Andrews is a New Orleans native from the Treme neighborhood who got started with street bands early, hence his nickname and brand: Trombone Shorty. These days, Shorty — only 29-years-old and more than capable of placing his funky music at the crossroads of funk, hip hop, and the New Orleans brass band tradition — is playing rock clubs, festivals, dance rooms. And while he brings the pure appeal of pop music, he does so with much jazz feeling and soul.

Though Shorty sings, his band “Orleans Avenue” is mainly an instrumental outfit that understands that it’s all about a certain kind of rhythm, which sets up feet-in-motion and improvisation. For me, 2010’s Backatown was more than fun — it was the kind of record that rewarded multiple listenings and needn’t be ashamed of being “pop”. And when I saw Shorty in his home town at Tipitina’s that autumn, I felt at my core that the trombone was somehow back in vogue. (See “Rebirth in the Tremé: New Orleans Ascendent“, PopMatters, 30 November 2010)

Ryan Keberle

I’m equally enamored of trombonist Ryan Keberle, whose band Catharsis has been all over New York for the last year, playing with an intelligence and intimacy that belies the silly stereotype of the trombone as an indelicate instrument. Keberle is young enough and hip enough (and smart enough) to have collaborated with and backed up musicians like Sufjan Stevens and Justin Timberlake, but his own music is now the main event. Catharsis is a quartet that adds trumpet, bass, and drums and plays precise, chamber-like arrangements that owe a bit to Gerry Mulligan, a bit to Ornette Coleman, and whole lot to arrangers such as Thad Jones, who could make a big band sound like pastels.

Keberle’s band is small, but his arrangements open up like spring blossoms without ever losing their edge. And the addition of singer Camila Meza on the new record In the Zone makes things even more pliant. But the main thing I want to highlight is Keberle’s trombone work. It can skip lightly (check out “Gallop”) and it can sing sweetly. He has a feel for the use of effects, mutes, and different timbres, but his recent music almost never features his virtuosic skills on his instrument, favoring a poignant solo by trumpeter Michael Rodriguez or a cool ensemble passage.

In conversation, Keberle is wry and kind, aware that jazz musicians aren’t stars anymore, sure, and equally aware that jazz trombonists might be seen as second tier even in the jazz world. But, at the same time, his band is seductive and appealing, and it is capable of changing — or, even, calculated to change — your trombone phobia.

But for the rest of this column let me sing the praises — and the chops, imagination, and creativity — of Joe Fiedler, a trombonist even less likely to be known but maybe even more dazzling.

A Closer Look at the Amazing, Unsung Joe Fiedler

Joe Fiedler’s career as a trombonist started, ironically or appropriately depending on your point of view, with a road gig with the remnants of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Why not? Joe was playing around Pittsburgh, his home town, but soon enough moved to New York where he played for Broadway shows but also, talk about having some brass, crashed a rehearsal for a new large ensemble led by pianist and free-jazz legend Cecil Taylor. Never asked to leave, Fiedler developed his “out” credentials, too.

Fiedler is a trombonist determined to destroy trombone stereotypes with abandon. Do you associate the instrument with big band music? That’s cool, but check out the Joe Fiedler Trio on Sacred Chrome Orb (Yellowsound, 2011), where Fiedler is the lead voice, backed only by John Hebert on bass and Michael Sarin’s drums. Sound dull or monochromatic? Nope! Because Fiedler’s command of the trombone allows him to play multiphonics (two notes at once) with delicate precision, to gets bluesy on a moment’s notice, to work hooky melodic ideas into his solos that tie back to his interesting tunes. I adore “Next Phase”, where all these things are going on, via an arrangement that gives all the players an interlocking role in a simple compositional idea.

As you move, tune by tune, through Orb, you find yourself wishing you just had more from this trio. But soon you will. A new version of the trio will release I’m In in April, and it’s an even more appealing and lively record. Fiedler’s rhythm section is grooving from the jump, with “Grip” being a rocking little blues that the leader solos over with a growling, mumbling, conversational joy. “In Walked Cleo” is a playful minor theme that lets Fiedler play pretty and sentimental, while the title track opens with a kind of muttering, multiphonic, crazy-creative solo cadenza that will take your breath away — before it sets of a little groove tune that might have been on a hip Lee Morgan record from 1966.

All of that is great, but if you want to go into trombone overload for the new century, you have to hear Fiedler’s band Big Sackbut: three trombones (including the afore-praised Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla) and tuba (Marcus Rojas). The newest release from this band is Sackbut Stomp, which adds slide trumpet virtuoso and beyond-category hero Steven Bernstein on three tracks. The band’s rendition of the Roger Miller classic “King of the Road” will remind you of the (nearly) peerless Brass Fantasy band led by Lester Bowie, except that Fiedler’s arrangement is a shade less tongue-in-cheek, just barely. The guys play loose-as-a-goose and yet precisely, as well.

For sheer trombone love, I would have you listen to Fiedler’s original ballad “Pittsburgh Morning”, where this amazing player and composer sings the lead with as much creamy tone as Tommy Dorsey ever got and as much original melodic invention as the old New Orleans players. It’s a piece of music that somehow melts your heart with just a slide trombone and a tuba on the improvised solo. It’s what any musician would hope to achieve: feeling that moves from his heart, through his hands and lips and breath out into the air and across to a listener, moved.

Am I pronouncing a trombone renaissance? The Trombone is Back! Nah. Of course it never went away. Too many of us just weren’t listening. With the exceptional talent of folks like Eubanks, Keberle, and Fiedler, maye we’ll be lured back to the dreamy and daring sounds of this noble and fun horn.

Splash image: Trombone closeup from Shutterstock.com.