Jazz fans tend to be fanatical about those artists that most directly speak to their own musical tastes. Over time, a sense of familiarity with the musical personalities of their iconic favorites becomes entrenched, followed by categorization based on style and genre. Those already familiar with Conrad Herwig's musical endeavors over the past 20 years are likely to speak to his great versatility, at home in both jazz and Afro-Cuban musical circles as he is in leading his own varied projects. Then there's the undeniable technical proficiency he has attained that puts him in a class by himself, a valuable asset for the kind of advanced hard bop that serves as foundation for his usual modus operandi.
All the foregoing is to suggest that Herwig fans who think they know his methodology quite well will be somewhat surprised by the revelations offered with Obligation, essentially an organ combo record within the soul-jazz continuum. On closer consideration however, the genesis for this venture can be traced via other projects that have included Herwig, most notably time spent with Don Braden in an organ group documented on the saxophonist's album The New Hang.
"This was a project I've wanted to do for a long time because I'm a B3 fanatic," Herwig says with a palpable degree of satisfaction. "My grandmother played organ in church and she always had an organ in her house. We used to play hymns together when I was a little kid. Of course, coming up I collected records by Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Jimmy McGriff, and all the heavy cats. Then, when I first came to New York, I was playing with Jack McDuff."
Over the course of seven previous Criss Cross discs, Herwig has challenged himself by changing up the ensemble groupings and tailoring his compositions to the talents at hand. "What I try to do with every record is have a different combination of instruments or play with musicians I've wanted to record with on my own but haven't had the chance to," Herwig says. "In thinking of what I wanted to do with this disc, I shot some ideas at [producer] Gerry [Teekens] and suggested an organ quintet because I wanted to do something with the combination of tenor and bone."
In assembling the cast of characters for this new undertaking, Herwig had no problem in putting together a cohesive unit with individual talents that he's developed a musical history with over time. "It's an organic thing in that we're playing around the city in different projects," the trombonist explains. "Then we go into the studio and it sort of picks up from there because you feel familiar with all the cats."
As for Mark Whitfield, making his debut appearance on Criss Cross, Herwig first encountered the precocious guitarist while on the previously mentioned McDuff gig. "Dave Stryker was in that band and then when he left Mark Whitfield started with the group and that's how I first met Mark, which was over 20 years ago," states Herwig. "One of the great things about Mark is his versatility because he approaches the guitar like he was a horn player, but at the same time he can approach it from the totally traditional role."
A Criss Cross veteran with four of his own sessions as a leader for the label, Seamus Blake has recently spent some time of his own working in organ combos. He's gigged with Project 0 featuring Ingrid Jensen and up and coming organist Gary Versace and on Wycliffe Gordon's Dig This! (Criss 1238) the saxophonist was part of an ensemble that included Sam Yahel. "Seamus and I have played together so much that there's a trust level that allows us to experiment, but know that there's a safety net there," says Herwig about his front line partner.
Both Gene Jackson and Kyle Koehler have previously shared the stage with Herwig, the former appearing with the trombonist on Hieroglyphica (Criss 1207) and the latter making "the new hang" with Don Braden's organ group. "Gene and Kyle are both from Philly and so we got a Philly sound and groove going," Herwig says. "Of course, Mark is from Manhattan and Seamus is from Canada and I'm an Army brat, so it was a great experience to have all these guys come together."
Coming as no surprise to those familiar with his gifts as a composer, Herwig set out to avoid the cliches associated with your run-of-the-mill organ record. As he explains, "I told the guys I didn't think I was going to have any traditional fatback organ stuff on the record and then I ended up writing some because I think it's impossible to escape that sound because it's in the tradition. But the other tunes are more of my kind of thing in the post '60s harmonic language, but transmuted onto the organ. In fact, I would really be remised not to talk about Larry Young, who is one of my all-time heroes. Larry really made the breakthrough on organ by taking John Coltrane's harmonic language and putting it on the B3. So that's the kind of thing that we humbly try to emulate, [but] with the modern harmonic language."
Starting things out with a catchy line that nonetheless has all the substance you'd expect from a Herwig original, Forget About Me speaks with deceptive simplicity. "This is one of the more traditional tunes on the record, with an Eddie Harris vibe," says Herwig. "It's blues like, but without being a blues." Keep an ear out for Whitfield's stinging contribution and some heated exchanges between Herwig and Blake before the tune's conclusion.
By contrast, Solid Ground is a buoyant waltz that hits a gentler stride and a more relaxed groove. "One of the concepts that I went for here was that less is more," Herwig asserts. "I had actually written several different versions and arrangements of these tunes with more complicated harmonies and then as I played through them I gravitated towards more simplicity. There are not many musicians like Seamus that I would feel comfortable playing with in unison. In fact, it's sometimes easier to play in harmony than it is to actually be simple and explore the melody like we do on this one."
Lazy Bones is a title that essentially seems to match the languid feel of the tune's serpentine melody. "That repeated figure and vamp [in the beginning] is an Elvin Jones-like figure, but it's basically an E flat minor blues," says Herwig. "I have this theory that all successful jazz musicians can play the blues on any tune at any time. The thing is, they don't necessarily have to play the blues, but they give you the feeling that they could and that's one of the qualities of jazz that I totally love." Whitfield's solo includes some cutting single-line runs in the Grant Green tradition to match Koehler's Larry Young vibe.
A reflective composition of great beauty, Herwig calls Lua Flora "a piece that is very close to my heart." The tune's namesake is the daughter of guitarist Jose Netto, a close friend of Conrad's. "Tragically she was taken from us in an automobile accident at a very young age. The first part is really a reflection of sadness and then the second part of the tune that goes into the major vamp is about being uplifted and providing affirmation. Seamus' whole solo is magical, with Gene playing pandeiro and Mark playing acoustic guitar."
Containing its share of heated exchanges, Obligation is notable for a remarkable conversation between Herwig and Jackson that finds both men at the peak of their abilities. "Playing with Gene is just amazing," enthuses Herwig. "But then when you listen back to it, you wonder how you had enough energy to come up with your own solo."
For those who have been following Herwig since his early days, you might find something familiar about Tell Me a Riddle, a line that was featured on the trombonist's first recording. "It's a journey through a complex set of changes," boasts Herwig. "it has some surprise resolutions and different kinds of chord qualities. It's one of the first tunes that I ever wrote and I still play it a lot, so I figured it would be a fun thing to play with Seamus because he tackles changes so well."
The session concludes on a thoughtful note with The Blue Shore of Silence, a title taken form a collection of poems about the sea by Chilean author and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. "My wife is from Argentina and so we read a lot of the South American authors," Herwig says about the inspiration for the piece and the reverence he has for Neruda's work, a man that he calls "arguably one of the greatest poets of all time."
Thus comes to a close the latest chapter in the ongoing musical adventures of Conrad Herwig. It's a disc that the trombonist rightly feels is "very listenable," a quality that he finds particularly gratifying these days. "I'm overjoyed with the guys in the band. They're all virtuoso players and good friends too. When you're able to communicate and have a feeling of trust, you can take chances and [then] it's really a dream come true."
C. Andrew Hovan
All About Jazz, Jazz Review, Down Beat