Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Brass Connection - "Giant Steps"

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

"I think this is a great album! Of the Trombone albums I have heard to date, -this is one of the most exciting."
- Slide Hampton, Jazz trombonist

"This record exposes a new breed of artist, both traditional and visionary.
The compositions and arrangements therein demand a great spontaneous effort and yet keep a sensitive awareness of fellow performers. Truly an outstanding tribute to Jazz of the '80s!"
- Sammy Nestico, arranger and composer

"Doug Hamilton has brought together some of the top musicians in North America. The musical colours painted by the trombones make this a rare and beautiful album."
- Phil MacKellar Host of CKFM's "All That Jazz"

“This is jazz-pure and simple. This is jazz that entertains and recharges the spirit. Here are forty minutes and eight tracks that define what jazz is all about: music that depends on its performers to transform themselves into spontaneous poets, expressing their personalities and imaginations through their instruments.
Here is a band composed of a trombone quintet and a rhythm section enriched by the addition of vibes and guitar that alternately swings or sighs and never loses its unerring beat. The swirl of tonal colours lends this album a haunting quality, both of the sounds of jazz remembered and perhaps a revelation of the sounds of jazz in the future." - Peter C. Newman Editor, Macleans Magazine

I developed this posting because I wanted to spend a little time with two of my favorites things - the sound of the Jazz trombone playing John Coltrane’s by now famous composition - Giant Steps. [If this statement calls to mind the lyric - “... these are just two of my favorite things,” then I confess to being a maker of bad puns.]

I have always been intrigued by the bass clef sound of the trombone, especially in combination [e.g.: Jay and Kai/J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding] or in a choir [e.g. the trombone section of a big band which is usually made up of three or four trombones including a bass trombone].

The rub against two trombones as the co-leads in a Jazz combo is that they do not generate enough contrasting sound by comparison with a trumpet and a tenor sax or a trumpet and an alto or baritone saxophone, which make up the more common front lines in a Jazz group. Put another way, the trombone’s range of sonorities [textures] on a tonal “palette” is limited.

Of course, the key to establishing sufficient contrast in two bass clef instruments is the way in which they are voiced [arranged].

I’m always on the lookout for cleverly orchestrated multi-trombone recordings which is basically how I stumbled upon The Brass Connection [Dark Orchid 652 - 02018; I’m not aware of a CD version of the recording].

The album features five Canadian trombonists - Doug Hamilton, Ian McDougall, Jerry Johnson, Bob Livingston and John Capon - with a rhythm section made up of guitarist Lorne Lofsky, pianist Frank Falco, Dave young on bass and Terry Clarke on drums. The versatile Don Thompson who plays bass vibes and piano with equal excellence, plays piano and vibes on some tracks and also arranged two of the eight tracks. The arrangements for the other six tracks on the album are by trombonists McDougall [three] Hamilton [two] and Johnson [one].

The LP is made up of an interesting mix of Jazz standards such as Dizzy Gillespie’s Tanga and Joe Henderson’s A Shade of Jade and the traditional Dear Old Stockholm combined with some intriguingly arranged original compositions including Ian McDougall’s Lightly Turning and Osteology and two beautiful ballads: Lee by Doug Hamilton and Quiet Steps by Don Thompson.

But the group’s version of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is the outstanding track in my opinion and the one that caused me to run down to my local record shop [remember those?] when I first heard it on the local FM Jazz radio station [remember those?]. It’s probably a good thing that I sought out a copy right away as I doubt that the small audience for Jazz recordings caused a run on sales.

What really gassed me about The Brass Connection’s version of Giant Steps was how Ian McDougall arranged the five ‘bones to come in right after the guitar solo by Lorne Lofsky playing Coltrane’s first two choruses from his solo on the original Giant Steps Atlantic LP. I mean, talk about running a musical obstacle course!

Ted Gioia in his The Jazz Standards offers this view of the challenges inherent in Coltrane’s masterpiece.

Giant Steps, first recorded by John Coltrane for his 1959 Atlantic album of the same name, quickly became famous in jazz circles — but more as an obstacle course than a favored jam session tune. The song Cherokee had played a similar role for the boppers of the early 19405, weeding out the wannabes not ready for the demands of modern jazz. Think of Giant Steps as Cherokee on steroids. [Emphasis, mine.]

True, Giant Steps was not as revolutionary as some of the more avant-garde offerings of the day. Coltrane's song stayed in 4/4 time, followed a i6-bar form, and did not veer outside the conventional boundaries of tonality. The chord progression borrowed many elements used previously by jazz players—listen to Richard Rodgers's bridge to the 1937 standard Have You Met Miss Jones? for
an important predecessor. Yet at Coltrane's brisk tempo and with a few of his own ingenious harmonic twists added to the mix, this musical steeplechase presented a stiff challenge to an unprepared soloist, circa 1959.

Ah, Coltrane was quite prepared  …. The saxophone titan, for his part, had developed some handy improvisational patterns to employ on the song, most notably a repeated phrase that draws on the opening four notes of the pentatonic scale. Coltrane relies on this motif repeatedly in his solo, and close study of his improvisation reveals a certain rote quality to it. Yet the overall effect is nonetheless impressive, perhaps even a bit unsettling. I tend to view Giant Steps less as a song, and more an exercise Coltrane developed as part of his own intense self-imposed musical education — one that he left behind after he had mastered it. ….

But the jazz world did not forget Giant Steps. Every serious jazz musician ought to learn and master it—not just because it might be called at the next gig, but simply for the mind-expanding lessons it imparts.” [pp.126-127]

The following video features The Brass Connection on - what else? - their version of Coltrane’s Giant Steps [You can hear them play the original Coltrane choruses beginning at around 2:28 minutes].

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