Old Friends

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The valve trombone is reviled, or at least treated with a sniffy disdain, in some misguided quarters. Quite why this should be, when the instrument has such a beautifully sonorous tone, is hard to comprehend. While offering the same range as the more conventional slide trombone, the valve version has a quite different, more mellow sound. When played by a master like Bob Brookmeyer it is something else again. Typical of the rather dismissive critical attitude towards the instrument, is this solitary sentence mention in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, “Valve trombones exist but their tone is somewhat inferior.” Which tends to prove that the writer had not done much listening to valve trombonists, or Mr. Brookmeyer in particular.
He has been playing the valve trombone for just about 50 years, and it has been his instrument since 1952. As a youngster he toyed with clarinet and drums before switching to slide trombone. He also played baritone horn in his school band. It was while working with Claude Thornhill that he switched to valve. With that band he doubled on slide and valve and used to take over the piano stool on occasion when the leader went home early.
Bob recalls meeting Kai Winding in Chicago in 1948 and sitting in with a Reynolds valve trombone, the first good horn he had owned up to that time. At least he felt truly at home with an instrument. His present horn is 20 years old and was custom built for him by Larry Mirsh in California. “I had noticed that the quality of new instruments was deteriorating, and to get one re-machined to my specification was the only way of obtaining what I wanted.”
The mouthpiece that connects Bob to his extra “limb” is one he started using in 1952. An awful lot of hot breath has passed through it in the intervening 46 years!
In addition to the myth about the valve trombone’s tone is the belief that it is an easier horn to manipulate than the slide version. Not so, insists BB: “It doesn’t operate on the principle of a straight, direct column of air. You have to learn to breathe and tongue differently. There’s a lot of plumbing you need to know about.”
Those twists and curlicues are clearly too much for many who find themselves defeated by the valve trombone’s eccentricities and turn to other instruments. That’s why so few top practitioners have emerged. Of course it has never held back Bob’s progress. As he points out, he has served his time as a lead “bone” in more than one big band down the years and has done more than his share of demanding studio work. His long career has blossomed anew in recent time when he has embraced the daunting prospect of playing numerous engagements as the only horn backed by a rhythm section. “Yes, I really enjoy it. I’ve never been a short spot player. I like to play longer, warm up and really stretch out. It gives me a lot more voice and there’s time and space to get really relaxed.”
He was especially pleased with this session, taped by the jazz department of the Danish Broadcast Corporation. “I’ve played with this working trio of Thomas Clausen, Mads Vinding and Alex Riel many times. We’re old friends and the fact that we are so familiar with each other’s approaches certainly makes all the difference.”
“I feel these performances are very representative of our work. They are truly the cream of those sessions. The tunes, with one exception, are all old popular standards which are great to play on. I’ve recorded them at other times and in different contexts and it was good to get back to them for detailed exploration in this intimate setting.”
The wild card in this pack was the closing All Blues, the marvelous construction by Miles Davis and introduced by him on the influential album Kinda Blue and which has been around, incredibly, for nearly 40 years. “No, I never did jam with Miles, but I worked opposite him many times so listened to him at great length. I’ve always liked this piece, but hadn’t played it much previously. We threw this one in and I think it came off pretty well as a spontaneous response. Naturally, we were all very familiar with the piece and it probably turned out to be the pick of the bunch.”
The recording and balance of this set in front of an attentive and responsive audience is excellent, and bob is also pleased by the contribution of engineer Lars Palsig who managed to get everything spot on, ensuring that nothing gets in the way of the music.
Bob Brookmeyer may be in his 69th year, but the word “retirement” is not in his vocabulary, and why should it be when he is playing with such spirit and energy? He commutes across the Atlantic every month to teach composition and take workshops for several days in Copenhagen. He also teaches at the New England Conservatory in the US and gains much satisfaction from helping young musicians to find their way. He has always been a man who looks to the future rather than the past, and in this respect has little time for various “retro jazz” movements which he feels are actually retrograde. “I guess they might help in introducing and popularizing the music, but I think it is very important for the young musicians of a new generation to be heard playing their own ideas—just as we were able to when I was starting out. If this retro stuff swamps them out then I’m not for it. There are some marvelous players in the States and Europe but they need to be heard.”
With an accumulated experience that has seen him partnering such significant soloists as Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre and Clark Terry, it tends to be forgotten that bob really is the genuine complete musician. An accomplished pianist, good enough to record some beautiful duets with Bill Evans, and a wonderful arranger for the Mulligan Concert Band and the That Jones-Mel Lewis Band among others, Mr. Brookmeyer has never been an individual to slot into some easy stylistic pigeon-hole. For one thing, his keen historical sense has led him to draw from earlier jazz styles. You can tell that his first jazz love was the easy swinging style of the great Count Basie Orchestra which sprang from his own native Kansas City. Just hear his fluent swinging on Who Cares for confirmation.
As he told Godon Jack in a Jazz Journal interview: “My earliest musical recollection is listening to the Basie band on the radio, and when I finally heard the band live when I was 11 years old I knew that that was what I wanted to do. I had the same feeling a little later when I was about 15 and first heard Debussy’s Nocturnes and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite—I could not believe that could be done in music, and as soon as I left high school I enrolled at the Kansas City Conservatory to study composition.”
I Hear a Rhapsody
Stella By Starlight
Polka Dots and Moonbeams
Who Cares.
All Blues

details
Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombone
Thomas Clausen, piano
Mads Vinding, bass
Alex Riel, drums