Sunday, February 28, 2016

Matt Niess and The Capitol Bones

© -  Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

You don’t see [hear?] front lines in Jazz combos made up of two of the same instruments very often.

The quintet headed-up by trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding was an exception as were the quintets led tenor saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.

I seem to recall the Candoli Brothers, trumpeters Pete and Conte, teaming up for the occasional record outing as did Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan on The Night of the Cookers, one of Blue Note’s rare “Live” recordings, but most Jazz groups preferred different sonorities in their lead horns.

To my ears, I always thought that the key to the success of same instrumentation front lines lay with the arrangements, particularly those that emphasized harmonies that made the texture of the two horns sound richer and fuller.

Arrangers who have a background in orchestrating for big bands usually have a good idea as to what devices to use to keep things interesting between two of the same horns.

Of course, things become even more interesting when two are doubled into four because the harmonic possibilities expand exponentially and the pairing of lead horns becomes a full blown trumpet, trombone or saxophone “section.”

With four trumpets, four trombones or, as is often the case, five saxophones to work with the scale and the scope of blended sound that can be voiced for same instruments is quite astounding.

Once again, trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding were among the earliest to explore the possibilities of expanding the sound of a chorus or section of the same instruments on the recordings they made with eight trombones which consisted of two groups of four trombones, each having three tenor trombones and one bass trombone.

A trombone quartet [sometimes expanded to a quintet with the addition of a second bass trombone], backed by a swinging piano-bass-drum rhythm section performing arrangements that explore the full range of the instrument’s sonority is one of my favorite Jazz sounds.

I guess if two of something is good four or five must be better?

Over the years, I’ve scouted out trombone quartets and quintets such as Super Trombone made up of Jim Pugh, Eijiro Nakagawa, Dave Taylor and Dave Bergeron and Canada’s The Brass Connection which features Ian McDougall, Doug Hamilton, Jerry Johnson, Bob Livingston and John Capon.

A later find was The Capitol Bones headed up by Matt Niess which resulted from a heads-up from Danny Beher at Sea Breeze Records.

Jerry Amoury wrote the following detailed insert notes The Capitol Bones’ Epistrophy (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3042) CD. The background information about how the group achieves its distinctive sound and the annotation of each track serves to underscore how instruments with the same sonority can create such a wide range of textures.

After Jerry’s notes you’ll find a video and an audio-only digital file that will provide you with a chance to sample The Capitol Bones’ renderings of Monk’s Epistrophy and I Mean You.

“To the general listening audience the trombone is a pleasant instrument to hear from time to time. Trombonists, on the other hand, are obsessed with all aspects of the instrument. The sound of the solo trombone, the lush blend of trombones playing together, the ringing of the overtones when the pitch is just right; these are the things that compel trombonists to seek out others of their ilk who share that love. Many times, this obsession leads to the formation of trombone ensembles.

No other type of group can provide the pure-cane blend of five trombones playing music created specifically for them with that sonority in mind. It's a glorious sound that draws trombone players together like a moth is drawn toward a flame.

In order to elevate a good group of players to a great ensemble you need some very important ingredients: strong leadership, boundless energy, chops across the board, and charts that give the players the opportunity to display their wares. The Capitol Bones is an ensemble that has combined all of these elements in near perfect balance.

Leader and founder, Matt Niess, created the group in 1991 bringing together some of the best jazz trombonists in the Washington, DC area. That same year The Capitol Bones won the Kai Winding jazz trombone ensemble competition sponsored by the International Trombone Association. The sound of this group has always grabbed the attention of other trombonists. More importantly, it has piqued the interest of composers and arrangers from all over the nation. Since its creation, The Capitol Bones have performed arrangements and original compositions from such notables as Conrad Herwig, Mark Taylor, Mike Tomaro and Jim Roberts, just to name a few.

In 1997, The Capitol Bones came out with their first CD, My Favorite Things (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3020). The recording introduced the ensemble to a vast audience well beyond the boundaries of the DC region. So successful was this recording that Matt Niess has created his second offering, Epistrophy (Sea Breeze Jazz® SB-3042). Like the previous CD, this project offers superb ensemble playing, great solos and clever arrangements. Epistrophy stretches the creative limits of the arrangers in a way that is fascinating and truly original. Matt called upon arrangers Tony Nalker and Mike Tomaro to write charts beyond the standard melody-solo-soli section-coda-tag form that dominates so many trombone ensemble recordings. These charts expand the group's limits in terms of dynamics, musical expression, range and blend.

This CD is more than a reprise of a previous recording. It is a labor of love which pushes the players and writers to a greater level of creativity and intensity that can only be reached when all involved are equally dedicated to the proposition that all trombone ensembles are not created equal.

The Capitol Bones use three tenor and two bass trombones throughout the CD. Two basses give the group more options with regard to tone colors and voicing. The title track, Thelonious Monk's classic Epistrophy, arranged by Tony Nalker, takes full advantage of this. Listen for the two basses playing kicks in perfect 5ths that drive the melody forward. Tony, pianist throughout the recording, shows his love for Monk's intense and aggressive melodic sense with this arrangement. The in-your-face, no-apologies energy of this tune brought the audience to its feet at the 1999 International Trombone Festival in Potsdam, NY. If this opener doesn't grab your attention hit the eject button right now!

Mike Tomaro's arrangement of One Note Samba captures Antonio Carlos Jobim's smooth, elegant style perfectly. As the title implies, there's little to pull from the melody notes in this tune. The ear is drawn to the supporting voices beneath the melody. Tomaro moves the inner voices in a way that gives the "pretty" notes their day in the sun. Great groove, great chart and great solos by Jim McFalls and Tony Nalker.

What is it about Monk that makes his music so well suited for trombone ensemble? Clever lines and really cool harmonies which offer ample room for passing tones and counter-lines. This is true of Tomaro's arrangement of I Mean You. Drummer Steve Fidyk starts the tune with a groove akin to a New Orleans street band. The bones match that feel with the upper voices harmonizing the melody set against a two-feel tuba line played by the bass trombone. This tune is aggressive and fun to listen to.

Matt Niess pays homage to Stan Kenton's big band with Here's That Rainy Day. It's the rare trombonist who hasn't played Kenton's wonderful big band arrangement. This is a straight lift from the original.

After hearing NY trombonist Conrad Herwig play Joe Henderson's Inner Urge, Matt decided to arrange it for the group. The harmonic structure of this chart is a far cry from the standard ii-v-i formula [a common Jazz chord progression]. The more static harmonies give the soloist a chance to play lines once thought to be the sole domain of the tenor sax and trumpet. Listen to Matt Niess' work throughout this chart. His lead playing is outstanding.

Speak Low gives the ensemble a chance to show off the blend and cohesion that has become a Capitol Bones trademark. A series of 7/8 lines in counter motion to each other create an intricate ostinato. As things settle into a nice groove the melody appears in the middle register. The timbre created with two bass trombones is beautiful and lush. The rhythm section consists of triangle, guitar and shaker. Jay Gibble's trombone solo completes this unique arrangement. Tony Nalker wrote this arrangement for the '99 ITW.

Bass trombonist Jeff Cortazzo is featured in an arrangement of the standard, I Thought About You, written for him by his lifelong friend Matt Niess. It's a great vehicle for Jeff to show off his incredible flexibility on the horn. He makes it all sound so easy. An added bonus for the listener: it's a wonderful, swinging chart. Listen for Jim McFalls' solo work in this one.

William Walton wrote Touch Her Soft Lips and Part for Lawrence Olivier's 1944 film Henry V. This lovely ballad is perfectly suited for trombone ensemble and beautifully arranged by Tony Nalker. The work opens with a treacherously exposed unison statement of the primary theme. Later, dark velvet, lowly-voiced harmonies are set against a soaring melody line throughout the rest of this piece. As well as being the arranger, Tony plays both the trombone and piano solos.

Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, arranged by Matt Niess, is presented as a salsa here. Listen to Steve Fidyk's relentless drive on the drums and Jim Roberts' Santana-like guitar. This chart demonstrates how powerful and dominating this group can sound when given the chance. Matt's solo exposes his love of salsa playing and all the aggressive nature that it demands!

Stolen Moments, arranged by Bob Olsen, showcases the solo talent of Jay Gibble. Matt's use of a pixie mute while trading off with Jay is a nice effect. The tempo is slower than one might expect to hear. This gives the chart a weight to it that swings.

Hank Levy gave us a true gem when he wrote the 5/4 waltz, Decoupage, for the Kenton 76 album. The ensemble sounds buoyant as it fits perfectly into the mixed meter groove. Jim McFalls' solo is perhaps the best on the CD! Listen to the rhythm section. Jim Roberts, Tony Nalker and Steve Fidyk have played together for years and that maturity comes through here. It's joyful.

Mike Tomaro's Conspiracy Theory was originally written for big band. Matt convinced Mike to arrange the chart for The Capitol Bones. He included a tricky, very hip trombone & guitar duet, along with a wicked soli section. This is the only funk chart on the CD.

The Capitol Bones close out this project with Tony Nalker's arrangement of Thad Jones' A Child Is Born. The selection was recorded twice by the players with both takes mixed together in order to make the ensemble sound like a trombone choir. The arrangement is simple, beautiful and a fitting capstone to this CD.

When hobbies and passing interests move to the next level great things can result. Epistrophy’s proof of this adage. On behalf of Matt Niess and The Capitol Bones, listen and enjoy the music. It's for you.”

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