Influential Recordings: Absolute Trombone

In my last post I discussed how listening to a borrowed copy of Romantic Trombone Concertos began to open my eyes to a bigger world of repertoire and possibilities for the trombone. A few things happened not long after that which gave me even “bigger ears,” as they say.

The first of these was that internet access was becoming more common. I first recall having internet access at school during my junior year of high school and used it to find anything and everything related to brass playing generally and the trombone in particular. I am fairly sure that this is how I obtained my first catalogs for ordering sheet music and recordings through the mail. E-commerce, after all, was still in a very nascent state, and I didn’t have a credit card as a high school student, anyway.

The second occurrence was the beginning of correspondence—again, through the mail—with Dr. Ed Bahr, who would become my trombone and euphonium professor at Delta State University a little later. He introduced me to more pieces of music and places to order them. As the then-assistant editor for recording reviews of the International Trombone Association Journal, he also knew a lot about the recorded repertoire for low brass. I would later succeed him in that editorial position and have now served in that role for nearly 17 years. It is amazing to think of how little time passed between my first introduction to trombone recordings and my having many of the newest recordings for my instrument pass across my desk.

Joining the International Trombone Association and receiving its quarterly journal was the third of these important happenings. Even as an 18-year-old college freshman I had a keen sense that my real professional life was beginning, and that joining relevant professional organizations was part of that. The ITA Journal is published in print and (now) online every quarter, and besides interesting print articles, news, and music and recording reviews, there are a number of advertisements. In the first issue I received there was an advertisement for a new recording called Absolute Trombone, and for whatever reason it caught my eye, so I ordered a copy. While I had by this time purchased a number of “classical” trombone recordings, this was the first jazz/commercial trombone album I owned. As had been the case with Romantic Trombone Concertos a couple of years earlier, my understanding of trombone music and its possibilities was expanded once again.

The mastermind behind Absolute Trombone was Michael Davis (b. 1961), an active New York City freelancer and sideman for groups like the Rolling Stones. Davis’s company, Hip-Bone Music (do you see what he did there?) was then still quite new, and has become in the past 20+ years a leading publisher of educational materials, performance repertoire, and recordings for trombone and low brass. Having been familiar with Davis’s work for a number of years now, I usually use the word “commercial” to classify it rather than “jazz.” Even on this recording, some of the pieces could rightly be called jazz, others in a more contemporary/popular style. All are worth listening to, and all hold up well 23 years after release. There were three aspects of this recording that were particularly eye-opening for me.

The first of these is the personnel list. The trombonists on this recording were then and, for the most part, remain today in the first rank of trombonists in New York and elsewhere. Trombonists will recognize most or all names on this list:

Urbie Green
Bill Watrous
Steve Turre
Michael Davis
David Taylor
Conrad Herwig
Jim Pugh
Joe Alessi
Robin Eubanks
John Fedchock
Birch Johnson
Tom Malone
Keith O’Quinn
Ed Neumeister
Herb Besson
Larry Farrell
Jack Schatz
George Flynn

At age 18 I believed this was an “all-star cast” because the advertising for the recording said so, and they all sounded great to me. Now having lived in this professional world for a couple of decades, I *know* this is an all-star cast, and that made this recording very special.

Secondly, the soloing on this recording. I recall as an incoming college student thinking that I knew something about jazz improvisation because I didn’t play the written-out solos in my high school jazz band music exactly as written. Yeah, I know. That’s pretty silly. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know! Hearing “real” solos from Urbie Green, Conrad Herwig, Bill Watrous, John Fedchock, Steve Turre, Michael Davis, and others really blew my mind, and even more so when I realized that these people were improvising their solos!

Finally, the ensemble writing here is great. Just in the first track there are eight trombonists with rhythm section, playing complicated lines and tight harmonies, along with great solos and one particularly neat spot with bass trombone and string bass playing right along in unison. The last note in the first part is what we sometimes call “double-B-flat” (i.e. B-flat5), and was even more amazing to me than the F below that I had found so astounding just a couple of years earlier. The great writing continues through all twelve tracks, all Davis originals with the exception of a surprising arrangement of I’m Getting Sentimental Over You. Bill Watrous’s playing on the solo is as smooth as you would expect, but the harmonies in the ensemble are not reminiscent of Tommy Dorsey at all…yet they work!

If you are familiar with Michael Davis’s writing, the sound on these tracks will be recognizable to you. The whole album is fun, the playing is great, and it is worth an hour of your time. Go have a listen!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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