Slide Hampton and the World of Trombones: Spirit of the Horn

Slide Hampton and the World of Trombones
Spirit of the Horn

I first saw both Slide Hampton and Steve Turre in a Dizzy Gillespie big band sitting with the late Britt Woodman and so many other wonderful players it tantalised even more than DG’s United Nation Orchestra (Nation, singular, not Nations, was what DG meant, and even this website gets it wrong!), where I again saw them both: two bands so full of great soloists and one concert was too short to hear enough of them all.

Hampton here does his best to avoid leaving anybody unheard (and not by Ellington’s method of hiding the fact that this and that trumpeter was also a splendid soloist; his bass trombonist, the lovely Chuck Connors, denied he had himself being neglected, saying to his colleague Buster Cooper’s amusement that there was no solo ability to neglect). Hampton would also have been on the Steve Turre’s J.J. Johnson tribute CD but for illness at the time of the session (his World of Trombones sideman Andre Hayward takes his place), and is really a second dedicatee of it. He founded a “World of Trombones” ensemble in the 1970s, bringing together Turre and Robin Eubanks for the first time, as a statement on behalf of music then suffering from a deprivation of what the trombone can give. It would be wrong to say that band was dedicated to anything less than music, or amounted to anything less than trombonists being allowed to make the case for something then being neglected (certain musical qualities, I mean, not just the trombone).

Hampton, who by sheer will fortuitously learned to play trombone left-handed, developed in the 1950s as the outstanding arranger for a little big band led by Maynard Ferguson. A trumpeter with megatons of technique (and high-notes wholly superfluous to his amazing neglected gifts as a most inventive mainstream soloist), Ferguson could at times pretend he had a huge band, given Hampton’s ear for harmonics and consequent, his ability to produce a huge choric sound by creative scoring and close attention to the intonation of the various instruments. Hampton can also fulfil (in trombones) a demand once stated by Count Basie, that a section of five horns should be able to and sometimes should produce the pianissimo of one muted horn playing alone.

Claude Thornhill was I’d think the pioneer of Hampton’s general approach, augmenting his swing era big band to manage a larger orchestral size of sound by adding three French horns and limited vibrato. The sound drew Gil Evans to him and inspired Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” ensemble, revived since Davis’s death. The Canadian Rob McConnell cites Gil Evans as an influence, and he orchestrates on similar principles. As to why Slide Hampton revived the trombone ensemble idea recently, and with a dozen virtuosi, it isn’t merely charitable to say that it has the same motivation quite obvious in his choice of notes as a soloist. He likes to make creative musical sense, and any notion of gimmickry is blown away.

“Cherokee” is an ideal opener, about as no-nonsense as a jazz standard gets, barely more than a set of chords, whatever its English society bandleader composer thought. It’s what’s called a challenging sequence, whose difficulties inspire — especially as the basis of a sort of tenor battle that became integral to jazz when Hampton (born 1933) was in his teens. He likes a challenge, and whatever the direction of any of his own solos, they seem usually to be energised by finding ideas progressively more difficult to play as the improvisation proceeds. The result is assurance as often as excitement, and trading ideas with the current star virtuoso Bill Watrous brings the best out of both of them. Watrous has his own lyrical feature in Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”.

This is the CD of a concert also recorded on video, and at its heart is “Tribute Suite”, five movements dedicated to J.J. Johnson and Louis Armstrong, the former’s “Lament” segueing into “Basin Street Blues” presumably relating the founder of a way of playing trombone to the founder of a way of playing called jazz improvising on harmonies rather than melody. I’m delighted to hear Benny Powell here, Hampton’s partner on “Basin Street”, his sound reminds me of that of the late George Chisholm, rhythmically unique and the first great European jazz hornman (a Scot discovered by Benny Carter in London in the mid-1930s). Powell’s still a wonderful player. Virtuoso trombone was really discovered by a child prodigy, Jack Teagarden, unable as a boy to do everything with the slide and thus forced to develop lip technique. Coleman Hawkins played piano while Teagarden and his tragically short-lived friend Jimmy Harrison worked together creating jazz trombone as a solo instrument on the lines pioneered by Armstrong (and Hawkins).

The second movement, “April in Paris”, begins with a joke on a famous Basie recording but Hampton as soloist is paying tribute to Charlie Parker (and the greatest harmonic and rhythmic advance since Armstrong). In the third, Lester Young (an intermediate creator of phrasing) in “Lester Leaps In” shares a tribute which also applies to the big band nursery of so much jazz. As in a performance of the same theme with his earlier ensemble, Hampton gives just about everybody else the test of soloing for about as long as it took Young and others in the 1930s-40s to create those sometimes only sixteen-bar masterpieces (within happily three-minute ones) which soloists memorised and meditated on for decades. The fourth section, “Moment’s Notice” is dedicated to John Coltrane, and is perhaps Hampton’s most complex arrangement, four young lions soloing (as well as members of the excellent rhythm section). As to why the fifth movement, the tribute to Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”, was given to Todd Bashare to arrange, I don’t know. All I know of Todd Bashare is this very able arrangement, but jazz has always been an art of delegation. It’s no forfeit of individuality to co-operate towards an objective which is also your own.

The overall impression of the suite might have been suggested in the rapprochements of Johnson and Armstrong, Parker and Basie, and Coltrane and Hancock and Hampton (Slide, that is, not his sometime boss Lionel). It seems to be the consolidation of a musical medium or style, an integration — for what the earlier, smaller trombone ensemble was about was just that.

The member of the ensemble I heard most recently was David Taylor, currently in a trio led by the Swiss reedman-composer Daniel Schnyder (with Kenny Drew, Jr. on piano) and bass trombonist on Ellington’s recording of New Orleans Suite. Taylor can play fluidly like J.J. Johnson and is also a dab hand with mutes in the other tradition of Joe Nanton (not a sort of playing anybody gets to do here, though). He has a lovely resonant sound when playing on bass trombone what these heroes did on the smaller horn. But he’s also a bass trombonist playing bass trombone music, and in the trio doing even more than express that affinity with string bass players which trombonists have habitually felt and spoken of. I mention him out of appreciation and also to raise the question of how much might be expected from more of these men. David Gibson among them has his own composed feature “Maya” sharing solos with Hampton. Taylor solos on “Walkin’ -N- Rhythm” (the title plays on an Ellington warhorse, but its first word says miles more about the theme), arranged by another bass trombonist, Max Seigel, and featuring the other two, Tim Newman and Douglas Purviance (who likes to play Ellingtonian figures) as well as their deep brother John Lee on bass.

A proper sampling of the ensemble is the closer, “Blues for Eric”, which gives every man jack a blow and indeed an audition with listeners. All are very good, but carefully listening along with the solo order printed on the insert will let the listener hear the stand-out performers, anything but an ordeal since this also lets you hear that they’re all different. There’s no point naming names in a review, for if you buy this CD you get all of them anyway. I’d be the last person to discourage a hearing of Slide Hampton’s remarkable palette, including times when Basie’s ideal of quiet is satisfied. But don’t ask me how by so many horns playing together at once, and none of them a French horn, when in fact there is video evidence to confirm. Why you’d need it I wouldn’t know. It’s obvious even from the sound, these men were having a great time working enormously hard.

The CD was produced by Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), and all proceeds go to support their interesting jazz programme (if you need more than a musical recommendation to prompt a look at their website). That establishment isn’t to be confused with Manchester Sports Guild, which at casual glance might be easy to do — historically a major English jazz venue in the native city of Roy Williams, influenced by valve trombonists from Brad Gowans to Bob Brookmeyer, versatile and probably unequalled in the Ben Webster lyrical repertoire (he has a feature “Ladyless and Lachrymose”) by any other player of the slide instrument. This CD was produced by Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, the one in the city of Pittsburgh, where Slide Hampton was born.