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Interviews

Conrad Herwig: There's Nothing Else

By Published: February 25, 2013
AAJ: In the summer of 2012, you played a series of concerts on the theme of the Latin Side of Joe Henderson at the Blue Note in New York.

CH: In a lot of ways, doing the Latin Side of Joe Henderson comes closest to home for me because I was blessed to tour with Joe Henderson and play in his quartet, his quintet, his sextet and his big band. I love Joe Henderson's music. I've been fortunate to share the bandstand with so many great musicians, but on a day-to- day basis, pound for pound, it was the greatest experience of my life, playing next to Joe Henderson.

It was an amazing experience traveling around the world with him—an amazing learning experience, too. It was daunting, soloing after Joe Henderson, because he was such a great saxophonist. But I also consider Joe to be in the pantheon of great jazz composers.

Joe grew up in the era of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and yet had his own individual voice—he was an innovator, along with them. Playing Joe Henderson's music is completely a labor of love for me. And having someone with the stature of Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
Joe Lovano
b.1952
saxophone
as part of this, playing the tenor saxophonist role, is just amazing. The other guys with us are so great, too—Ronnie Cuber
Ronnie Cuber
Ronnie Cuber
b.1941
sax, baritone
, Alex Sipiagin
Alex Sipiagin
Alex Sipiagin
b.1967
trumpet
and all the guys in the rhythm section. Bill O'Connell in particular is an amazing force. Again, I don't like the word "underrated," but I think Bill is one of the great composers, arrangers and musical minds around today, especially in his work on Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean music.

AAJ: In addition to A Voice Through the Door, another album of yours in the straight-ahead jazz mode that stands out is Jones for Bones Tones (Criss Cross, 2007) with trombonist Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Steve Davis
b.1967
trombone
.

CH: This was a follow-up to another record I made with Steve called Osteology (Criss Cross Jazz, 1999), which is the science of bones. A Jones for Bones Tones is a tribute to a lot of different trombone players that I really admire. Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
Slide Hampton
b.1932
trombone
, Curtis Fuller
Curtis Fuller
Curtis Fuller
b.1934
trombone
, J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
J.J. Johnson
1924 - 2001
trombone
, Frank Rosolino
Frank Rosolino
Frank Rosolino
1926 - 1978
trombone
, Albert Mangelsdorff
Albert Mangelsdorff
Albert Mangelsdorff
1928 - 2005
trombone
and then some trombone players that people may or may not know as much, such as Eje Thelin
Eje Thelin
b.1938
, a great Swedish trombone player and one of the all- time greats anywhere. In Europe, everyone idolizes the guy.

And, of course, growing up in Hawaii, Trummy Young
Trummy Young
Trummy Young
b.1912
was my idol. He moved there in 1964 when he left Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong
1901 - 1971
trumpet
and married a Hawaiian girl, and he lived there until he died in 1984.

I was lucky as a kid living in Hawaii, my teacher had been in the Air Force—Les Benedict, who's just a fantastic, virtuoso player—and he had a lot of European records, including Eje's album. So I had cassette copies of Eje when I was about 13 or 14 years old. The funny thing was, my teacher also gave me stuff like Carl Fontana
Carl Fontana
Carl Fontana
1928 - 2003
trombone
. Another teacher of mine was Ira Nepus, who was living in Hawaii and who played with Woody Herman
Woody Herman
Woody Herman
1913 - 1987
band/orchestra
. Frank Rehak
Frank Rehak
Frank Rehak
1926 - 1987
trombone
was his roommate in the band in those days, probably in the '60s, maybe early '70s. Les and Ira were Trummy's students, and so I was able to be around Trummy and hear Trummy play. And I thought that was how everybody played trombone. It was an amazing gift for me, as a young kid to be in the presence of someone who's such a legend.

Another little bit of lore: when I was eight years old, we had our first band day, and the band director had a big truck with instruments. He would take a look at each kid. And to me he said, "Hey, kid put your arm out." And so, I put my arm out, and he said, "OK. You're a trombone player." I was the only kid who could reach the end of the trombone slide.

AAJ: You've had a long-time association with the Mingus Big Band, also. How did you get started with that?



CH: A lot of friends of mine were playing in the band, guys like Alex Foster
Alex Foster
Alex Foster
b.1953
saxophone
, John Stubblefield
John Stubblefield
1945 - 2005
saxophone
and Dave Taylor. So I guess what happened is that Sue Mingus got my number from them. The Mingus Big Band is like a family. These guys are like my brothers, really. We've been tight friends for years. We get together socially, too. When I'm talking with my wife and thinking about who we're going to invite for a barbecue, these are the guys. It's a great thing.

AAJ: You've also served as the musical director for the band, for example, during the time that they recorded the Grammy- nominated Live at the Tokyo Blue Note (Sunny Side, 2006).

CH: Yes. For now, though, I call myself the designated hitter. There have been great musical directors along the way in the history of the Mingus Big Band—Steve Slagle
Steve Slagle
Steve Slagle
b.1951
sax, alto
, Alex Foster, Craig Handy
Craig Handy
Craig Handy
b.1962
saxophone
and Boris Kozlov
Boris Kozlov
Boris Kozlov
b.1967
bass
now is leading the band. If I'm needed, I'm happy to fill in.

I have to say, though, that with all the great musical directors of the band, in a sense, they're not really the leaders of the band. Mingus is the band leader. Mingus was a warlock. He was a visionary. He was the jazz Merlyn—the prognosticator who foretold history. The amazing thing about Mingus' music is that all of the tunes are as topical today as they were the day that he wrote them. Like, "Fables of Faubus"—you could be talking about any number of corrupt, mean- spirited politicians today. It's not just the political message, though. It's the music itself. He had this whole multi-layered approach to music. There's a hidden psychological dimension to everything he did. That's why the kid who plays electric guitar in his garage rock band and heard of Mingus because Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
Jeff Beck
b.1944
guitar
played "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" comes to the Jazz Standard and learns to love Mingus. And he's sitting next to another the kid who's deeply into Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
. Mingus' music has meaning in so many different layers.


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