Sunday, October 12, 2008

Conrad Herwig - Part 1

- [C] Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Conrad Herwig is one of the leading trombonists on today’s Jazz scene. This piece explores his work from two perspectives: [1] the Criss Cross Jazz recordings that he has made under his own name and also with groups led by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and trumpeter Greg Gisbert and [2] the theme albums that he has developed both as a tribute to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and as a way of interpreting their music in Latin Jazz contexts.

These Criss Cross and theme recordings span a 15 year period – 1992-2008. Not only do they provide a vehicle to hear the evolution of Conrad’s playing over this period, but they also serve as a platform for becoming familiar with the work of the many excellent contemporary who populate these sessions as sidemen.

Herwig is an alumnus of North Texas State University in Denton, Texas (where he performed in its renown One O’clock Jazz Lab Band), and currently Professor of Jazz Trombone, Jazz Improvisation, and Jazz Composition/Arranging at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Conrad began his professional career in 1980 with the Clark Terry Big Band and later joined the Buddy Rich Orchestra for tours of the US and Europe.

After setting-up a permanent residency in New York, he performed with Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones and Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, as well as, with the orchestras of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mel Lewis, Bob Mintzer, Henry Threadgill, the Mingus Big Band and Eddie Palmieri.

In small groups, Herwig also performed and recorded with Red Garland, Dave Liebman, Max Roach, Bob Stewart, Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Greg Gisbert, Brian Lynch and Walt Weiskopf.

In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Sixth Edition, Richard Cook & Brian Morton comment that “Herwig is an exemplar of trombone technique. … He’s fast, he likes the high register, …, he only rarely sounds like Jay Jay, and he’s so sure-footed that you can’t imagine him knocking one over.” Clark Terry has commented about Conrad that we should “be on the lookout for a new giant” and Eddie Palmieri has labeled Conrad “the best trombonist on the planet.”

Let’s begin this retrospective with Walt Weiskopf’s 1992 Criss Cross recording entitled Simplicity [Criss 1075 CD] on which he uses an unusual tenor sax, alto sax and trombone front line [Weiskopf-Andy Fusco-Herwig] although there is some precedence for this grouping in the Lighthouse All-Stars sound with Bob Cooper-Bud Shank- Frank Rosolino or Benny Golson’s New York Scene sound with Benny-Jimmy Cleveland-Gigi Gryce.
In his insert notes, Neil Tesser offers this explanation as to what Weiskopf was looking for in terms of the sound of the music on this album and Herwig’s role in helping to produce it.

“In the past, Weiskopf has issued his songs in the classic format of a saxophone-led quartet. On Simplicity, though, he leads an unusually instrumented sextet. The 34-year-old saxist has been toying around with the idea of a larger group for some time, in hopes of satisfying his desire to write for several instrumental voices. But his actual choice of horns involved other criteria. First, he knew that he wanted his tenor to play the featured role in the ensembles; for Weiskopf, this meant no trumpet (since that instrument usually takes the lead). But he also knew the importance of that slippery commodity called "chemistry," the invisible bonds that make Musicians A and B sound so much better together than A and C.
So Weiskopf called upon trombonist Conrad Herwig and the little-known alto saxist Andy Fusco, both of them such good and longstanding friends that they really serve as surrogate brothers to the tenorist. Fusco, a dozen years older, played with Weiskopf in Buddy Rich's big band of the early 80s. "He was my mentor then," says Weiskopf. "For years, I could never understand why he was so under-recorded, and I wanted to do something about that on this project." Fusco, who teaches extensively, boasts an especially expressive tone, and his solos reveal the relaxed excitement of a jazz veteran. As for Herwig another veteran of the Rich band, who now sits behind Weiskopf in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra - he and Weiskopf first met at the Interlaken Music Camp in Michigan, when both were 16. (But while they have maintained their friendship for nearly 20 years, this album marks their first recording together, other than one project with the Akiyoshi band.) Herwig has produced several of his own albums, on which he exhibits a well-grounded yet often exploratory musical personality.”

Rounding out the group is an excellent rhythm section made up of Walt’s brother Joel on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. In addition to his wonderful section work on Weiskopf’s arrangements, Herwig distinguishes himself with facile and inventive solos on the seven originals by Walt [out of 9 tunes] which is not an easy thing to do given his limited exposure to their structure before the recording date.
The same assemblage came together four years later on Walt Weiskopf’s 1996 album for Criss Cross [1147] entitled Sleepless Nights. Here again, with the exception of Harold Arlen’s evergreen, Come Rain or Come Shine, all of the tunes are originals with plenty of room for Walt, Andy and Conrad to “stretch out.” Sid Gribetz comments as follows in his inserts notes about the nature and the quality of the music on the album:

“More than just a feature for the musicians on this album, who all display great artistry and sensitivity, the album is a setting for Weiskopf's great writing. Weiskopf as a player is firmly rooted in tradition but appears totally unique and undeniably identifiable. As a writer, he has managed to transcend the hard bop idiom and compose in a bright, fresh contemporary manner. However, unlike others who ply more ethereal contemporary airs, Weiskopf's writing retains the hard drive, swing, and emotional intensity of the best in jazz, while stretching the forms to more sophisticated compositions.”
In 1996, Conrad released The Latin Side of John Coltrane [Astor Place TCD4003], the first of his “theme” albums. Its Latin version of Blue Train alone based as it is on sustaining and expanding the whole notes that make up the melody as played over a cooking 6/8 Latin rhythm is worth the “price of admission” with Ronnie Cuber’s cookin’ baritone sax solo on the tune thrown in as a bonus. The interplay between Brian Lynch and Conrad is magnificent on this track [and throughout the recording] as they trade fours bar solos over a montuna that indicates what kindred spirits they had become as band-mates in Eddie Palmieri’s orchestra before this album was issued.

Douglas Payne offered this analysis of the recording on

“A great idea beautifully executed by New York trombonist Conrad Herwig. The trombonist/arranger/musical director chooses Coltrane's most accessible material from a period that arguably spawned his best, most memorable work (1958-1964), devised simple, exploratory frameworks for each (recalling veteran Chico O'Farrill), then assembled an outstanding collection of musicians.

In addition to Herwig's sinewy trombone, there's Brian Lynch on trumpet, Dave Valentin on flutes, Ronnie Cuber on baritone, Richie Beirach (who contributed to some of the arrangements), Danilo Perez and Eddie Palmieri on piano, Andy Gonzalez (from the Fort Apache Band) on bass and Milton Cardona on vocals and percussion. Selections are outstanding: “A Love Supreme,” “Blue Train,” (where Lynch trades fours with Herwig), “Afro Blue” (great flute solo by Valentine), “Naima” (beautifully featuring Beirach), “After The Rain,” “Impressions” and “India.”

Throughout, Herwig solos flawlessly, with a sensitivity and fire that's reminiscent of the source of his tribute. Herwig's record, more than Joe Henderson's recent big-band event, sounds like a natural conclusion. The arrangements and performances work well together and the Latin environment seems a logical foundation for Coltrane's passions. One last note: Astor Place has done a beautiful job packaging The Latin Side of John Coltrane , sparing no expense for trendy art direction that recalls some of the very expensive covers Limelight Records put out in the mid 60s. Recommended.”

Also in 1996, Conrad made another guest appearance on Criss Cross, this time with his Akiyoshi-Tabackin and Buddy Rich Big Band mate, trumpeter Greg Gisbert on the latter’s The Court Jester [1161].

Gisbert who lists both Clark Terry and Bobby Shew as “my trumpet role models” approached this album from his more recent tenure as a member of Maria Schneider’s orchestra with an emphasis on a four-horn treatment which created sounds and textures that were different in a small group setting.
Joining Gisbert and Herwig on the front-line are Jon Gordon [ss/as] and Tim Ries [ss/as/fl] and they are supported by Janice Friedman [p], Jay Anderson [b] and Gregory Hutchinson [d],

The following excerpt from Ted Panken’s insert notes to the recording demonstrate the thought and effort that Gisbert and Friedman put into the title track of the disc:

"Gisbert and Friedman co-composed and arranged The Court Jester, the title track, a rousing modal tune with a pentatonic feel. "I conceived basically the form of the tune and wrote the little 8-bar melody, while Janice contributed the changes we blow over and came up with a middle part. Conrad Herwig blows in E-flat minor, then there's a contrapuntal improvisation by Janice and Jon Gordon in which they blow on an B7, then Tim Ries blows with just the drums, then I play over the changes. Each solo section has a completely different form."

1997 saw the debut of Heart of Darkness [1155], Conrad’s first album for Criss Cross under his own name. Joining him to form the front-line is Walt Weiskopf [ts/ss] and Stefon Harris on vibes along with a terrific rhythm section made up of Bill Charlap [p], Peter Washington [b] and Billy Drummond [d].
Bob Bernotas offered these insights into Conrad’s exciting conception for this recording in the following excerpts taken from his insert notes:

At first glance, this new recording by trombonist Conrad Herwig … might bring to mind a venerable jazz tradition: "the blowing date."

But, as Conrad insists, if this is a blowing date at all (and that's an awfully big if), then it's a blowing date for the '90s-and beyond. "It's all live to two-track, it was recorded in one day, it's basically semi -impromptu," he explains, "and I guess that's what I consider a blowing date. But there is more writing on this recording, although everybody is such a good musician they made it sound natural, organic. So maybe the definition of a blowing date has changed from just calling standards to presenting more original material. But it's still very spontaneous and very reactive." In other words, this disc offers the best of both worlds-the immediacy of a classic blowing date presented through meticulously conceived original compositions.

The disc opens with the selected works of Conrad-the trombonist-composer (Herwig) and the writer (Joseph). "There are two short stories of Joseph Conrad's, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, that I've been familiar with for several years and really enjoyed, and I had come back to when both of these pieces were composed. I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of introspective studying of books, and that's, sometimes, how I come up with titles."

The first of this pair, Heart of Darkness, is, as Conrad describes it, "a through-composed melody. The soloing is what I call 'interactive jazz expressionism.' I like the twists and turns time-wise, and the interaction between the soloists and the rhythm section. It's not just straight-ahead blowing. It's an exchange of kinetic energy, stretching the forms, improvising with a pulse, reacting to what is happening at the moment." That sort of fluid expressionism is readily apparent throughout the track, and especially so, Conrad notes, in Wait Weiskopf's mysterious, almost surreal, tenor saxophone statement. …

Conrad's The Secret Sharer, the second of his literary-inspired pieces, is a straight-eight, medium-tempo tune ignited by trombone-soprano saxophone counterpoint. "Believe it or not, I wrote this after listening to Bartok's String Quartet No. 6," he explains. "I used that as a reference." Conrad's solo rises and falls in an arch-like pattern that peaks in a stunning sonic display, not of pyrotechnics for its own sake, but of improvisational daring and depth. Walt plays soprano sax in the heads here."

And Conrad had this to say about pianist Bill Charlap’s contributions to the date:

"Bill's not only a phenomenal virtuoso of the instrument," Conrad remarks with admiration, "but his conception and his musicality are great-and the way he comps. You know, 'comp' is short for I accompaniment,' but I think in his case it's short for 'compliment.' He's always listening, he's always reacting, and he's always spontaneous."

Next up for Conrad on Criss Cross [1176] was the 1998 release of Osteology [the study of bones - more puns!]] on which Herwig is joined by fellow trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist James Genus and drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts.
Dating back to the J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding trombone duo that was together for a few years in the mid-1950s, I’ve always been a fan of front lines made up of multiple trombones, and the Herwig and Davis duo as heard on this album does not disappoint. David Adler had this to say about Herwig and the album in his www.allaboutjazz review:

“A jazz guitarist with a penchant for provocation once called the guitar “the lamest jazz instrument? besides the trombone.” The big horn, with its awkward slide and low, nasal sound, is certainly a jazz underdog. Its important role in big bands is indisputable, but it is generally not thought of as a front man instrument. In other words, there’s never been a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane of the trombone. Thanks to the unwieldy mechanics of the instrument, trombonists typically haven’t been able to negotiate chord changes and fast tempos as fluidly as a sax or trumpet or piano player can. As a result, the trombone has not achieved the kind of iconic status in jazz that we associate with, say, the tenor saxophone.

But Conrad Herwig threatens to demolish all that. His technical facility is astounding. On his second Criss Cross release, Osteology, he recruits fellow trombonist Steve Davis of Chick Corea & Origin fame to complete his frontline. He didn’t name the record “osteology” — the study of bones — for nothing. The session comes across as a kind of trombone manifesto. If you’re thinking that two trombones up front might sound clunky and colorless, think again. This record is burning; it sounds more like a live show than a studio date. David Kikoski is on piano, James Genus is the bassist, and Jeff “Tain” Watts is behind the kit.
It’s remarkably easy to tell Herwig and Davis apart. Herwig is the more flamboyant of the two, tending toward the higher register and brandishing a brighter tone. Davis, favoring lower and fewer notes and a mellower tone, usually solos after Herwig. The disc opens with a seldom-played Coltrane number, “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Other non-originals include Joe Henderson’s Caribbean-style “Fire”; a clever and unusually brisk 6/8 reading of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; the oft-played but wonderful ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; and a blindingly fast “Devil May Care,” on which Kikoski solos with only his right hand, in the manner of Herbie Hancock on Miles Smiles.

Three Herwig originals complete the program. A contemplative Latin groove grounds “Kenny K.”, a moving tribute to the late Kenny Kirkland. Fittingly, piano is front and center, with Kikoski soloing first. “First Born,” which gets my vote for best track, is a medium blues that recalls Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner on Blue Note. Genus and Tain lock in and swing furiously. And “Osteology” closes the record with a fleet dual-trombone line over a breakneck swing tempo; Herwig and Kikoski solo at the peak of their respective powers.

There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here in terms of material; it’s as straightforward a hardbop/postbop menu as can be imagined. But the performances are outstanding and the energy is consistently high. The two trombonists surpass, to a startling degree, the supposed limitations of their instrument, supported by one of the most explosive rhythm sections I’ve heard on record in a while. Interestingly, Kikoski and Tain did not gel as well on Kikoski’s own Criss Cross effort The Maze. This time the ferocity just doesn’t let up.”

The Kikoski-Genus-Watts rhythm section is back Conrad’s 1999 release on Criss Cross entitled Unseen Universe [1194], but he moves to Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Seamus Blake on tenor to help create his most densely-voiced recording to date.

Turning to David Adler, once again, this time in a review for

“Conrad Herwig's dazzling trombone chops and intelligent compositions make Unseen Universe, his third Criss Cross release, a stirring success. His sextet can maneuver around tight corners and yet attack with the force of a band twice its size. With Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Seamus Blake on tenor and soprano sax, David Kikoski on piano, James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, Herwig can be sure of the group's ability to bring lushly orchestrated charts to life and improvise with sterling clarity and brilliance. Conceptually, with the title track and also with pieces called "The Tesseract," "From Another Dimension," "Triangle," and "The Magic Door," Herwig seems preoccupied with geometry and some of its metaphysical implications. Even as he draws heavily on the '60s Blue Note sound as established by figures like Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, Herwig stretches the limits of modern mainstream jazz with this all-original set.”

After a one year lay-off, Conrad returned to Criss Cross and released Hieroglyphia [1207] in 2001. Also returning for this date is Bill Charlap whose consummate skills as a Jazz pianist seem to grow immeasurably with each passing year, and James Genus on bass. Gene Jackson is the newcomer on drums.
C. Andrew Hovan provided this complimentary and perceptive review of the recording for the readers of

“It is without taking away anything from the founding fathers of this music to suggest that some of today's practitioners might be the most technically gifted lot to come along. Of course, they now have the entire rich history of jazz at their fingertips and slews of recordings for inspiration, yet there's no denying the talent at hand. Such is the case with 43-year-old trombonist Conrad Herwig. Hardly a Johnny Come Lately, Herwig has been on the scene for some 20 years playing in the bands of such legends as Buddy Rich and Eddie Palmieri, but has to be considered one of the most innovative players to come along since the days of J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller.

Herwig's fourth and most recent date for the Dutch Criss Cross label, Hieroglyphica is a no holds barred quartet set of all originals that finds everyone working at full throttle. Without other horns to get in the way, this is the best place to experience Herwig at his most incendiary. Starting with a low moan and then breaking into wild glissandos through the upper register, Herwig kicks off the title track with a dazzling display that then builds to a frenetic climax with drums wailing and the rest of the ensemble participating in the collective frenzy.

It's time for a quick cool down with the Latin-tinged 'The Orange Dove,' a breathy melody that is supported beautifully by pianist Bill Charlap's comping. And speaking of Charlap, for those of you only familiar with his demure and most recent trio dates, you'll be surprised at how much the pianist seems to step outside of the box here. In fact, some reckless abandon breaks forth on 'Island of the Day Before' as Herwig builds the tension before giving way to Charlap, who ushers in the calm before the storm and then hits with some heavy stuff of his own. And to get an idea of Herwig's range and the full complement of devices, look no further than a bluesy 'The Intruder.' Technically accomplished and still filled with communicative appeal, Hieroglyphica just may be Herwig's most brilliant recital to date.”

A year later in 2002, producer Gerry Teekins brought Conrad back into the Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn, NY for the recording of Land of Shadow [1230]. Incidentally, the purity of sound on all Criss Cross recordings is due to the outstanding skills of its recording engineer, Max Bollerman. Gerry Teekins has formed a working relationship with Max similar to the one that was in effect between Alfred Lion and Rudy van Gelder, the engineer who supervised the recording of the classic Blue Note albums of the 1950s and 1960s.

On this recording, Conrad [with support no doubt from, Gerry Teekins, himself an accomplished Jazz drummer] demonstrates his appreciation of how special the affinity of rhythm section mates can be for the success of a recording by bringing back Dave Kikoski [p], James Genus [b] and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts [d] as participants on this date.

In an effort to keep himself fresh through the use of new voices, Conrad turns to Tim Hagans on trumpet and relative newcomer, Ben Schachter on tenor saxophone.
Dave DuPont on the recording in

"Conrad Herwig is a musician on a mission to bring trombone into the front rank of jazz horns. And over his two-decade long career he's succeeded admirably in demonstrating the horn's flexibility. Still, his playing sometimes seems weighted down by that sense of mission. At his best, as he is consistently on Land of Shadow, he lets it rip, with the trombone's natural voice, complete with its slight slurs and slides, coloring the relentless torrent of notes.

Though, as on most of his sessions, this date is devoted to his own originals, Herwig opens with a high-powered take on the standard "Lullaby of Leaves," which sets the tone and introduces his sidemen. Pianist David Kikoski is especially impressive here, stretching the tune's harmonic structure to its limits. His more lyrical side is shown on the date's only other cover, Duke Ellington's "Gypsy Without a Song."

Trumpeter Tim Hagans complements the leader's ethos, evoking such progressive boppers as Booker Little and Ted Curson. The trumpeter, Hagans, charges through the harmonic mazes with the urgency of a fullback trying to gain a few more yards. Saxophonist Ben Schachter is a new voice. An educator from Philadelphia he plays with a tone like a fine carving knife — buffed and burnished and sharpened to a fine edge. Drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts slashes across the beat, dealing out rhythmic wisecracks at every turn. Bassist James Genus, like his rhythm section mates a regular participant in Herwig-led sessions, plays the straight man, helping guide the ensemble with an insistent throb on the bottom. This helps the listener as well to negotiate Herwig's intriguing originals. The pieces range from the complex structures such as "The Dream Master" to the open jam on the minor-key blues, "Land of Shadow." Another shining entry into Herwig's impressive body of work."

to be continued in Conrad - Part 2

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