Conrad Herwig is a complete musician. His formal training, schooling at North Texas State University and a plethora of sideman and leader credits have to impress. No matter who he has worked with in a career that's now close to 20 years deep, the trombonist has always been one of the more congnoscent players, a musician aware of his surroundings and what's called for in any given situation. Simply, he puts a lot of thought into everything he does, underscoring the term "versatility." It's a descriptive word and concept he frequently employs and continues to stress.
"Versatility," notes Conrad, "is built at times out of necessity. We live in a musical time where, if you can't cover different genres you may not be able to make a living. (The reality is) the term 'jazz' has broadened." For instance, Conrad says - not to boast, but merely to explain - "I have played with big bandleaders such as Buddy Rich, Clark Terry, and Toshiko Akiyoshi, with Flora Purim and Airto, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D'Rivera and Joe Henderson. I've even played with Henry Threadgill."
Then again, he's also worked with Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach and the Brecker Brothers playing what he describes as "a kind of post-Coltrane '70s thing...Put it all together" and "your looking at a pretty wide field of jazz. You don't start out being most versatile, but... The way I look at it," says the trombonist, "is that I approach a sub-genre with a lot of respect and obviously with a work ethic and a discipline." Then "you can play in that genre with a certain amount of confidence."
Therefore, at any given moment, Conrad's an experimenter. He never stops listening or trying to learn. He continues to hone his craft and maintains a healthy respect for those who have preceded him historically. He'ssubtle and can lay in the background, yet he makes his points - on and off the bandstand - decisively and with clarity.
Enter Osteology, Conrad's latest expedition and second musical adventure for Criss Cross. The title, literally translated, is the study of the science of bones - in this instance, trombones. "It's not a bebop tunes," the bandleader says of the title track, "but the name recalls Bird. It was initially kind of a working title I came up with, and it just stuck." Title aside, Osteology confirms the fact that Conrad always pays attention to detail, to personnel, to conception, composition, arrangement and, finally, execution.
The eight compositions here, including three originals, are carefully selected and, in the end, offer us a glimpse into just how far Conrad has come, just how skilled a musician he is. Conrad's varied experience makes it next to impossible for him, on any one recording, to demonstrate and unleash his entire arsenal. He knows that. As a result, the trombonist has successfully learned how, during each individual project, to reveal a portion of his musical bandwidth. The end result is that we receive an in-depth look at a 1998 release Heart of Darkness, (Criss 1155) was, recalls Conrad, "an album of all original music. That recording took a more orchestrated approach." His Grammy-nominated Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place), obviously drew upon an entirely different set of musical patterns.
Those two recordings, especially Heart of Darkness, are quite different from this one. On Osteology, we have, as Conrad says, "the sonority of two trombones" operating in consort with a first-call piano, bass, drums rhythm section. Ultimately, this recording envelops the bebop and the straight-ahead spirits with a modern aesthetic.
"Basically this record is in the pocket," says Conrad. "On Joe's (Henderson's) tune, Fire, and on some of the standard, we're reharmonizing spontaneously. That gives them their flavor and concept of sound color." The genesis of Osteology, in part, came about because, as Conrad puts is, he and Steve Davis "happen to both record for Criss Cross. It's really a matter of showcasing the 'bones," says Conrad. "It's great to have the trombones on the front line. It's great for the recognition of the instrument," say the horn player who frequently refers to his instrument as "the 'Rodney Dangerfield of jazz.' Every tunes has trombone solos on it," notes Conrad, and that, he says, "is a step forward."
Conrad's fellow front-line trombonist, Davis, is an ex-Jazz Messenger and currently employed as a member of Chick Corea's Origin, the painist's wonderful acoustic project. The instrumentation here and the cooperative musical spirit between the two horn players inevitably recalls the seminal collaborative work of J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.
"It's a two-trombone project that could easily fall into the mimicry of J. and K.," admits Conrad in typically honest fashion. "What we tried to do - and I think we succeeded - was to update the vocabulary. What we've done is combine older elements to create something new. When you look at it, we're actually members of the post-Coltrane generation," says the 40-plus-year-old. "Miles, Herbie, Chick, etc.," meaning their respective compositions and approach, "have all infiltrated into the trombone. Music today isn't as instrument-specific as it used to be. Now, anything that can be played (musically) can be played on the trombone," says Conrad pointing to the material here. He's "always loved" John Coltrane's Syeeda's Song Flute and so Conrad included it here. It's safe to say the original versions of the interpreted pieces on Osteology, says Conrad, "are not necessarily associated with trombone." Fire was written by and for a saxophonist. And, says Conrad, "Devil May Care, was originally done by Miles and Wayne Shorter in the early sixties. I don't think of those tunes were associated with the 'bone.
Emphasizing the point, Conrad says, "We're comfortable with the music of Coltrane, Henderson and other as the earlier generation was with the music of Dizzy Gillespit and Charlie Parker. Steve and I," says Conrad, reiterating himself, "we're into more of a '90's vocabulary... from a harmonic point of view. The fact that for more than a year Steve's been working with Chich and I've been playing with Joe (Henderson) is going to shape our music. Without a doubt, they are two of the more important figures of the post-'60's movement."
Still, in order to make this record work, Conrad and counterpart Davis had to define their roles. When and what do they play together in unison? When, what and how do they harmonize and reharmonize? When do they alternate solos, trade fours or when does someone lay out? The fact that they are friends and have known and worked together previously makes the task that much easier. "I've known Steve for awhile, since his Blakey days," reports Conrad, adding, "We've played together through the years with the Mingus Big Band. He also subbed for me some times when I couldn't make some Palmieri gigs."
Aside from the camaraderie, there is the respect that Conrad holds for Davis. "He's a total musician - not just a 'bone player." Conrad reports Davis' overall knowledge of jazz, his imporvisational fluency as well as his sense of tradition all make hima likable partnet. "There are only a few trombone players I would want to do this recording with."
Nonetheless, the two men's sounds are quite distinct although COnrad notes that many people may not be able to discern who plays which solo on any given selection. "In general," says Conrad, "I probably flavor the upper register. Steve tends to favor the middle and lower register." And, says Conrad, Davis msy ulyimsyrly be more in the tradition, more drawn toward to and influenced by the likes of Curtis Fuller and Johnson. "My influences are more (Frank) Rosolino and Carl Fontana. My playing probably comes from more non-trombone players, too." The end result, claims Conrad, is that while the two men's musicality may be similar, they can still "express our own personalities. It's great to have us play together."
Meanwhile, with Dave Kikoski on piano, James Genus on bass and Jeff 'Tain' Watts on drums, Conrad has assembled nother short of the proverbial monster rhythm section. "This particular trio plays together often in New York and elsewhere," notes Conrad. What Conrad likes is that "all three of these guys are willing to take chances but never let the music go so far as to get out of control. Their playing is at that perfect point right on the edge." As is the case with Davis, in the past decade Conrad has become friends with each rhythm section player and has worked with them during the course of what amounts to parallel careers.
In the case of Kikoski, most recently Conrad and he have shared an association with the Mingus Big Band and an off shoot Mingus chamber group project. Some 10 years ago the two men met while playing with Finnish tenor saxophonist Eero Koivistoinnen. Both Kikoski and Conrad were in the process of establishing themselves. "It was a big deal for us back then," recalls Conrad. "Jack DeJohnette, Randy Brecker and Ron McClure were also in that band. Dave and I kind of bonded on that date. After that, we'd see each other intermittently and play together occasionally. By now we've played together quite a bit."
Conrad again points to versatility as one of Kikoski's strengths, stating the pianist is comfortable with all styles of jazz. "He can slip into any language. It's seamless. On the title track," says Conrad, "he's all over it. There's no set of chord changes he doesn't eat up. He can play the blues, and his conception of approaching standard tunes and more complex harmonic chord changes are all in proper context." Conrad notes that Kikoski's knowledge of other instruments, the saxophone in particular, serves him well. "He knows how to sound good," but, says Conrad, Kikoski's greatest strength may be in the fact that he "also knows how to make other soloists sound good. He's a very unselfish player and his accompanist and solo points of view match mine."
As most jazz fans know, bassist Genus prossesses and extensive discography. More to the point however is that he and Conrad have known each other for more than a decade. The two men first crossed paths when the bassist was playing with the Brecker Brothers. "I can remember hanging out together in Japan," says Conrad. At the time, the two men worked with different band. Conrad sums up their careers this way: "We always seem to be on the same musical wavelength."
As is the case with Kikoski, Conrad says Genus is "not only solid in the bass chair, but he's also a great soloist." Pointing to Devil May Care, Conrad says, "He solos with the fluency of a horn player. It's not an easy task to play with complex, poly-rhythmic players - like 'Tain & Kikoski, but James is totally comfortable.
With regard to dummer Watts, he is without question one of today's top drummers. Percussive, interactive, inventive and yet sensitive, Conrad holds him in high regard. "Arguably, he's the cream of the crop of my generation of drummers. His versatility (allows him to) cover all musical languages." Watts is most associated with Branford Marsalis and remains a member of the saxophonist's current quartet. "I've known 'Tain since the '80s," reports Conrad. "I sat in with Branford's group and that's the first time we played together." Later the two would cross paths when Watts would sub for Al Foster in Henderson's group. "Having a really cutting edge rhythm section always will vitalize, it will keep the sound fresh. That's a theme of jazz... always."
Listeners will, no doubt, be surprised just how tight and together this band sounds - as if the quintet works together all the time. For his part, Conrad's not surprised and thinks Osteology developed quite naturally. "Since I have individual relationships with each guy, and they know each other... it wasn't such a stretch to put this band together," says Conrad. "We see each other all the time. We've played together in different contexts over the years." Ultimately, the reason Osteology works so well is, as Conrad puts it, "These guys do the right thing all theh time. They know when to tip, they know when to go for it."
Jon W. Poses
Music columnist for the Columbia, MO. Daily Tribune
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