Criss Cross Jazz 1155 CD

Heart Of Darkness

At first glance, this new recording by trombonist Conrad Herwig —whose diverse resume boasts gigs with Red Garland, Clark Terry, Buddy Rich, Slide Hampton's World of Trombones, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Frank Sinatra, Henry Threadgill, Dave Liebman, Mario Bauza, Paquito D'Rivera, and currently, both Eddie Palmieri and Joe Henderson—might bring to mind a venerable jazz tradition: "the blowing date."

But, as Conrad insists, if this is a blowing date at all (and that's an awfully big if), then it's a blowing date for the '90s—and beyond. "It's all live to two-track, it was recorded in one day, it's basically semi-impromptu," he explains,"and I guess that's what I consider a blowing date. But there is more writing on this recording, although everybody is such a good musician they made it sound natural, organic. So maybe the definition of a blowing date has changed from just calling standards to presenting more original material. But it's still very spontaneous and very reactive." In other words, this disc offers the best of both worlds—the immediacy of a classic blowing date presented through meticulously conceived original compositions.

The disc opens with the selected works of Conrad—the trombonist-composer (Herwig) and the writer (Joseph). "There are two short stories of Joseph Conrad's, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, that I've been familiar with for several years and really enjoyed, and I had come back to when both of these pieces were composed. I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of introspective studying of books, and that's, sometimes, how I come up with titles."

The first of this pair, Heart of Darkness, is, as Conrad describes it, "a through-composed melody. The soloing is what I call 'interactive jazz expressionism.' I like the twists and turns time-wise, and the interaction between the soloists and the rhythm section. It's not just straight-ahead blowing. It's an exchange of kinetic energy, stretching the forms, improvising with a pulse, reacting to what is happening at the moment." That sort of fluid expressionism is readily apparent throughout the track, and especially so, Conrad notes, in Walt Weiskopf's mysterious, almost surreal, tenor saxophone statement.

"Walt is one of my best friends. We first met in Interlochen, Michigan, at the national music camp, when we were 16. We ended up touring together with Buddy Rich's band in the early 80s. Then we played together with Toshiko Akiyoshi's band for 11 years. We ended up in Frank Sinatra's band together and several other bands in between. And I've recorded three times with Walt for Criss Cross. So he's a guy that I've literally played a thousand gigs with. Walt is like a mild-mannered Clark Kent, but when he picks up that saxophone he's a different person. He's a surprising musician, although he doesn't surprise me anymore."

Conrad's The Secret Sharer, the second of his literary-inspired pieces, is a straight-eight, medium-tempo tune ignited by trombone-soprano saxophone counterpoint. "Believe it or not, I wrote this after listening to Bartok's String Quartet No. 6," he explains. "I used that as a reference." Conrad's solo rises and falls in an arch-like pattern that peaks in a stunning sonic display, not of pyrotechnics for its own sake, but of improvisational daring and depth. Walt plays soprano sax in the heads here.

In Conrad's modal composition, Inner Sincerity, "I wanted to explore a couple of different textures, especially the combination of trombone and vibes." The whole performance is charged and fueled by drummer Billy Drummond's relentless energy. "Billy really digs into the music. He absorbs the music and starts putting his flavor into it immediately." By the way, this was, Conrad recalls, the first take of the entire date. In fact, "this recording consists almost entirely of first and second takes. And that was one thing I decided. For better or worse, things tend to 'clean up' the more you play them. But what I like about the first or second take is the rawness. I don't care how great players are, it can be very difficult to keep that spontaneous vibe going through numerous takes. And there's nothing contrived when you do it that way."

Composed in tribute to his friend, saxophonist-composerbandleader Joe Roccisano (who died suddenly in 1997), Silent Tears begins, fittingly, in the trombone's lower, deeper range—"I call it the 'brooding' register"—and gradually works its way toward the horn's upper reaches. Joining Conrad in this heartfelt elegy is pianist Bill Charlap, whom Conrad met when they both played in Roccisano's nonet. Bill contributes a sensitive and introspective solo of his own, colored with pointillistic touches and harp-like flourishes.

"Bill's not only a phenomenal virtuoso of the instrument," Conrad remarks with admiration, "but his conception and his musicality are great—and the way he comps. You know, 'comp' is short for 'accompaniment,' but I think in his case it's short for 'compliment.' He's always listening, he's always reacting, and he's always spontaneous."

It's an unwritten rule: Every jazz recording must—or should—include at least one blues. And so we have The Instigator, featuring Peter Washington, one of New York's most sought-after bassists. "I knew Peter was going to be on the date so this minor blues was geared towards him. His credentials are really fabulous, but his playing speaks for itself." After Peter's fleet, yet solid, statement, Conrad builds a motif-based solo, expanding each musical kernel to its logical and satisfying conclusion. Walt Weiskopf on tenor and vibist Stefon Harris, in turn, uphold this high level of intelligent improvisation.

Although Watch Your Steps is Conrad's composition, it gets its inspiration and impetus from a John Coltrane masterpiece. "'Giant Steps' is a tune that you have to approach with trepidation," he maintains. "It's obviously a tune for jazz players of my generation, children of the '70s. It's a rite of passage for improvisors today. For me, Trane is the pinnacle—musically, spiritually, socially. His music had such a message. I think that's the thing that impressed me, how deep he was on every level."

And technically, Coltrane's music has represented the pinnacle for Conrad ever since he began playing jazz on the trombone. "Maybe there's something of the frustrated tenor sax player in a trombone player's body," he says with a laugh. "Not really frustrated, but I remember trying to learn Trane's solo on 'Countdown' when I was about 16 or 17, and having a teacher of mine say, 'Just give up, 'cause there's no way anyone will ever play that on the trombone.' And I remember wanting to make that teacher eat his words." Rest assured—he has.

The lone standard of this session, The Lamp Is Low, gets anything but the standard treatment. "Stan Getz once said," Conrad recalls, 'You should make the originals sound like standards and the standards sound like originals."' With that in mind, he has reharmonized the familiar melody, shifted it into 3/4 time, and, in the theme statement, employs Stefon's vibes as a sort of "Doppelganger," as Conrad says, subtly, almost subliminally, mirroring the horns.

During Bill Charlap's statement, the intimate, three-way interaction among piano, bass, and drums belies the word "solo." "That's one thing about all of the players on this record—everybody's trying to make everyone else sound good." When Conrad enters, the lamp may be low, but it also is hot. And each note of Stefon's contribution glows like a separate beam of light.

The burner, Tilt, is, in Conrad's words, "an exploration of the whole-tone sound." When Conrad closes his radiant solo with a distinctive whole-tone phrase, Stefon—an important new voice on an instrument whose true masters number in the single digits—picks it up and runs with it. "Stefon is sharp as tack, and, at his young age, already a very accomplished musician. I've been playing with him in Joe Henderson's group and that sound of tenor sax, trombone, and vibes just got in my ear. And so I decided to expand on it." Walt's solo, in sound and approach, suggests echoes of the late Booker Ervin, and Bill's is brimming with surprises and bold steps.

As far as Conrad Herwig is concerned, this recording represents "a reflection of my musical personality, of my identity as expressed by these contemporaries and colleagues." Clearly, his identity is that of a jazz artist who is aware of the music's past, immersed in its present, and striving to carry it into the future. And that, really, is the key to the essential character of this disc. All other descriptions or labels aside, this is a presentation of original music for today by a trombonist who already has moved into the next century.

Bob Bernotas, jazz journalist
New York, June 1998