Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eastern Trombone Workshop

Been a while since I've posted anything, been busy and got out of the habit.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to the Eastern Trombone Workshop, hosted every year by the U.S. Army Band at Ft. Myer in Arlington, VA. This year, among many other fine artists, they featured legendary jazz trombonist Bill Watrous and also the Pittsburgh Symphony low brass section. My French horn-playing buddy Ray from South Carolina went along, so he could hear what a real musical instrument sounds like. (Of course, he could argue he'd just never before heard a trombone played correctly.)

Bill Watrous played a set of solos with the U.S. Army Blues Jazz Band, and I must say, if the trombone section with that band is not the greatest trombone section I have ever heard, they certainly don't miss it by much. Harry Watters is the jazz solo "star" of the section, but Jeff Cortazo's incredible sounds on bass trombone added the real excitement. I think Stan Kenton would have been proud to call them his bone section. Watrous has had some serious health issues in recent years, but seeing him at ETW seemed like reliving the 1970s. Maybe he's lost half a step, but he had plenty of steps to lose anyway. With his economical style of playing, he's liable to remain a major player for years yet to come.

The Pittsburgh trombone section has turned over completely since I was a student in the Burg. My teacher, Bob Hamrick, just retired, and the rest -- Carl Wilhelm, Harold Steiman, and Byron McCulloh, have moved on or passed on. The sound has changed, but the playing is still first-rate. When I was in Pittsburgh, it was Conn territory -- the Conn 88H reigned supreme, and I think Byron McCulloh played a 71H. I get them confused, but it was a double-trigger bass rig with a red brass bell. Now, two out of three in the section play Yamahas -- Peter Sullivan (the principal) and Murray Crewe (bass). (Co-principal Becky Cherian plays a Shires.) Sullivan is quite the virtuouso. I had never heard him play before, and was quite impressed. You should hear them -- they have released this album, and I think lots of people should buy it.

Events like this are at once inspirational and depressing to me. It makes me want to practice harder and be as good as I can be, but it also informs me that there's obviously a world of difference between where I want to be, and where I am as a player. At this point in life, I simply have to concede that folks at that level understand something about playing that I simply don't get. Oh well. If God didn't put it in there, it ain't in there. It's quite possible if not probable that God thinks my playing in church is more important than playing in a major orchestra. Lining one's own perspective up with God's, however, is the work of a lifetime. I suppose the key is to be content with what you have and use what you do as an opportunity to give Him praise.

Anyhow, I was quite impressed by the Yamahas. At the exhibits, I tried out a great number of trombones, and liked the Yamaha large-bore tenors quite a bit -- they were smooth, like butter on pancakes. I tried the bass bone as well, and I found it a bit on the stuffy side, but it sounded good. (Doug Yeo of the Boston Symphony plays this horn too, in addition to Murray Crewe.) At just a little more than half the price of an Edwards, it would be hard not to give them serious consideration if looking for a new instrument. (I'm already pretty well stocked in Edwards equipment, and I love my Edwards bones, but these Yamahas are real contenders.) At the other end of the economic scale, Greenhoe has introduced his own line of trombones, but still offers the custom-assembled Bachs and Conns with Greenhoe valves. Their valves are smooth as silk, and their horns are wonderful, but we're looking at $7 grand or more for some of their specimens. Shires just introduced a new line-up of less expensive trombones; they play great. Of course, I spent a lot of time at the Edwards booth, bugging Ron (the Edwards dude) and trying out some of their new stuff. I really like the dependent dual-trigger bass rig, which is a fairly new design -- mine is the independent dual-trigger, and it's been a good horn, but I never use the second valve by itself, and would prefer not to have to blow through two valves until I need to do so.

Ray and I really enjoyed Rob Stoneback's lecture-demonstration on the art of ballad-playing on the trombone. He gave us a mini-history tour of ballad-playing all the way back to Tommy Dorsey ("fast, narrow, constant slide vibrato"), then Urbie Green ("delayed vibrato"), and so on. He demonstrated his ideas with a beautiful, sweet sound. (Looks like he might have been playing an Olds trombone from the 1950s or 1960s, but I couldn't tell for sure.) I liked his analogy that ballad-playing on trombone is the flipside of vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme singing scat -- one is an instrumentalist imitating a singer, the other is a singer imitating an instrumentalist. I'd never thought of it that way before.

Really, that's the job of a trombone player -- of any instrumentalist. That is, to sing through your horn. If you can bring a tear to someone's eyes (I mean a tear of joy or nostalgia, not pain), you've done your job.