Three trombones, one tuba, that’s it. Oh, and a dose of fun, a whole lot of blues, and tons of invention. Playing at a club in Austria, these fine fellows bring their brass virtuosity and more. I like to picture them pulling out the horns on the plane from New York over Europe and turning the flight into a transatlantic swirl of tailgate joy: bent notes, growls, low bumps, and high squeals, muted mewls and open-bell shouts. In-flight entertainment would move to another level.
Joe Fiedler is the leader and arranger for this band of ‘bonists. Fiedler is the serious prankster whose day job finds him arranging music for the Children’s Television Workshop classic Sesame Street and whose last recording was of themes from that sturdy source of great American tunes. His credits are broader than that of course, from the Cecil Taylor Big Band to many of his own ensembles. But the point is: for all his manifest brilliance as a player and musical mind, Fiedler likes to smile too. His band Big Sackbut (named for the trombone’s not-too-distant musical cousin from the early days) collects a few of the greatest improvising trombonists alive, connects them to a tuba and lets things rip.
This concert features Jon Sass on the lower horn, as well as Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla along with the leader. The range of sounds this group can conjure from just two kinds of low brass instruments is incredibly wide. Fiedler wisely gives every musician many opportunities to take the spotlight, usually in cadenza-like, unaccompanied sections that allow for maximum expressiveness.
The start to Fiedler’s arrangement of the Charles Mingus tune “Devil Woman”, for example, is Fiedler, alone, using every element at his disposal: rumbles and squirls, singing through the horn to create harmony, and brass-only multiphonics created by growling effects that normal humans should not even try to understand. What we can understand, though, is that it is cool as can be, the most human kind of music in how it sounds unmediated by valves or hammers or strings or any of that typical instrument business. It’s just a long tube and the human breath, plus brilliance. The arrangement, with a bouncing tuba figure and Mingus’ blues drench at play, is satisfying, followed by the three trombonists trading jokes and smiles in a series of short licks that rotate around. You better be having fun listening to this.
Three of the compositions here are by the great trombonist Rosewell Rudd, who died in 2017 and left a big hole in the world of joyous music. Fiedler dedicates the recording to Rudd, and maybe the most powerful thing during the concert was his tune “Bethesda Fountain” (for that angel-centered spot in New York’s Central Park). After a clean and thrilling solo intro, the ensemble blossoms into a thrilling Latin groove grounded in a potent Sass bottom. The arrangement is so bouncing and rhythmic that it won’t dawn on you to wonder if doing something like this without a drummer was a good idea—it plain-old was. Keberle’s lead-off solo is dark and heroic and limber all at once, and Bonilla rides over the tuba with a lightness of tone.
Just as fun is Rudd’s blues, “Yankee No-How”, which has lots of cute business but is a strolling blues with Sass walking like a bass player and each soloist displaying his wares as the other two play some hip accompanying figures You can hear the personalities clearly: Keberle brassy and clean, boppish and modern, Bonilla expressive with a mute, Fiedler in the upper register like a soprano trombonist, a real acrobat of the atmosphere. It’s all play, and they set up the solo order for maximum drama. “Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi” is Rudd’s as well: a swaying theme over rocking blues bottom from Sass. It’s also a whimsical composition that seems simple at first but develops waves of harmony during Bonilla’s improvisation, then ends with the band chanting the nonsense syllables of the title.
The rest of the tunes are by Fiedler, and they hold their own delights. “Peerskill” is kicked off by an unaccompanied tuba solo, but it quickly grows light on its feet with a pulsing figure that frames the melody and two driving solos—Keberle as a melodic beast and Fiedler as a gymnast. “I’m In” gets a muscular solo introduction from Bonilla and then develops a syncopated theme over tuba notes that alternate from stabbed eighth-note syncopations to a lurching swing. “Tonal Proportions” is a gentler modern theme that sets up Fiedler for a solo that moves through a series of subtle orchestrations for the other trombones.
For all this fun, the band can also play with more quiet and fluency. “Ways” has a folk-song simplicity and calm, with the three trombone voices set in very different registers as they harmonize on the theme. It is Fiedler’s most restrained and songful improvisation of the set, delivered with a tart tone. “Chicken” is a slick theme that blends the trombones’ sound in a way that calls to mind some of those old multi-bone bands of the past, like the J.J. Johnson/Kai Winding bands that produced beautiful, sung sonorities. This is the composition of Fiedler’s that I’d most like to hear tackled by a larger band, as it is so rich in harmony and counterpoint—it seems like it would shine as a big band chart or when driven by a great rhythm section of piano/bass/drums.
Of course, this is the general strength of Big Sackbut. Joe Fiedler conjures a great deal of musical texture and complexity from this unusual quartet. Joe Sass’s tuba tends to get most of the tunes bobbing and throbbing, often suggesting the fun of a New Orleans brass band and substituting the jabber of the trombone ensemble for parade-esque drums. Fiedler’s arrangements are smart enough to provide this punch but then to shift, as necessary, to other strengths that allow the small band to imply lush harmonies or various kinds of melodic counter-motion among so few voices.
Maybe this skill—suggesting larger worlds of wonder from small ensembles—is in Fiedler’s blood. Sesame Street does it, after all. And for a trombonist to pull off that magic also makes sense, given that the instrument has been sidelined too often in modern jazz. From an unlikely source, Joel Fiedler projects wonders.