Joe Fiedler is one of the master instrumentalists of his era, but he plays the trombone, so…
I’m kidding, of course. Though if you like dark humor, just hang out with some trombonists. They know that their instrument is not the leading man these days. But why shouldn’t it be? When you can play absolutely any musical idea that comes to mind, how is it different from a saxophone or a trumpet? And Joe Fiedler can play it all.
Like, Strange is the most appealing and accessible recording of Fiedler’s career. Previously, he has mainly recorded with a trio featuring only his horn, bass and drums. Between the talent in the band, Fiedler’s own spirit and technique (including the ability to play multiphonics — more than one note at the same time), and some arresting tunes, these discs are surprisingly fun. But the new record fills in the gaps without compromise. For the first time, we get Fiedler as the leader of a fairly traditional quintet: brass and saxophone (Jeff Lederer), guitar (Pete McCann), and bass and drums (Bob Jost and Michael Sarin, from the trio). The result is a smash and a kick in the pants — witty, wise and wily.
First, it’s a real treat to hear a front line of trombone and tenor (and some soprano) on a jazz recording again. It’s too rare a treat, reminiscent of the low, resonant punch that the Jazz Crusaders used to get with the same pairing. Listen to the title track (inspired, explains Fiedler, by his daughter’s assessment of his music), and you find Lederer and Fiedler riding atop a groove feeling in hip harmony that is never too tight. “Tuna Fish Cans” is a faster, more bopping head that also demonstrates how special this combination can be, with the trombone sitting above the tenor in a dancing, unpredictable harmony.
The ensemble sound on Like, Strange is defined by the ‘bone/sax sass, but guitarist Pete McCann is also crucial. Sometimes, he is part of the melody arrangement (on, for example, “Quasi”), and he is always varying his sound with pedal effects. When he chooses to play funky (such as with a wah-wah pedal on the title track), Sarin can fall into a backbeat groove, and you’ve got one mood. When he moves into Bill Frisell territory, as he does on “Maple Avenue Tango”, the sound of the band is more cinematic and mysterious. A more traditional, clean tone from McCann can get you in a post-bop Blue Note mood, as on the fast “ET (for Eje Thelin)”.
Hearing Fiedler play this music live recently, he played a couple of tunes with this band that were originally written for the trio. Augmented with additional harmony and texture, they fit right in, demonstrating that Fiedler’s composing has always been this engaging. And, hoo boy, is it. He mixes long, complex lines with catchy repeated riffs, he finds flashes of colorful harmony at just the right moments, he varies the rhythmic elements of his tunes often, and there are moments when the melodies take little squirts into surprise.
“Guiro Nuevo”, built on the Latin music form, uses a bob-and-weave phrase as its main melodic element, but then it shifts to a catchy, shouting motif that repeats and seems like it’s straight from a Latin big band chart. At its climax, the melodic line has the tenor and trombone play a half-toned blues shake that is irresistible. “Maple Avenue Tango”, the set’s other Latin tune, uses a simple stop-time devise that grabs you. “Go Get It” puts a sudden stop in its head twice, and also uses a dramatic dynamic shift from loud to soft to loud again and from waltz time to funk time. Each tune, without fail, incorporates a compositional element (or three) that hooks your ear.
It is also notable that the ensemble sometimes features Lederer on soprano saxophone, presenting an even rarer and intriguing sound for the band: a high saxophone sound and a trombone sound that reach unison only when each player chooses to find it.
But the real highlight of Like, Strange is the improvising. Lederer is a revelation throughout. To quote another critic who once wrote this about saxophonist Joe Henderson, Lederer is seemingly always in the middle of an amazing solo, even as he plays his first improvised notes. He jumps out with a fresh idea from the start, for example, on “Go Get It”, a swirling phrase that he blends into a set of intervallic jumps another eight bars onward. His tone is big but varied, and his notes trace the harmonies of the tune but can also wander off in deliberate ways, making him a puckish, slightly wild storyteller on his horn.
Fiedler plays like a man determined to change the way you think about his instrument. He makes the trombone whisper at times. He gets it to play Coltrane-ian sheets of sound. He glides from low growls to liquid-smooth high notes with seeming ease. His solo on “A Ladybug in My Notebook” is a fully formed work of art: conversational and poetic, a fluid demonstration of range, melodic grace, and surprise. There are too many wonders to list in a review — and plus they are mostly indescribable. But folks need to ask themselves, “when was the last time a trombone took your breath away?”.
The album closes with its most challenging piece, “Yinz”, which opens up the territory to more freedom. McCann is terrific here, building a harmonically daring solo based on chordal/textural improvising that sounds more like an open jam than “jazz solo”. It’s a relief from the usual, which leads us back to a melodic statement that bops and cha-chas. Fiedler saves his most alluring statement for last — geometric, growling, terse, smooth, ragged, and wonderful.
Like, Strange should send us all back to Joe Fiedler’s other records, which are also strong. But this most recent recording provides pleasure after pleasure, and it brilliantly serves up three master improvisers in the leader, Lederer, and McCann. The tunes jump and jerk, surge and sooth. All the playing here, in the compositions but also in the dialog that is central to the improvising, has wit. These musicians crackle with humor and fun as they play.
It’s not strange at all. It’s, like, great.