Conrad Herwig: There's Nothing Else
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 himan 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 voicehe 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 as part of this, playing the tenor saxophonist role, is just amazing. The other guys with us are so great, tooRonnie Cuber, Alex Sipiagin 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.
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, Curtis Fuller, J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Albert Mangelsdorf and then some trombone players that people may or may not know as much, such as Eje Thelin, a great Swedish trombone player and one of the all- time greats anywhere. In Europe, everyone idolizes the guy.
I was lucky as a kid living in Hawaii, my teacher had been in the Air ForceLes Benedict, who's just a fantastic, virtuoso playerand 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. Another teacher of mine was Ira Nepus, who was living in Hawaii and who played with Woody Herman. Frank Rehak 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, John Stubblefield 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 BandSteve Slagle, Alex Foster, Craig Handy and Boris Kozlov 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 Merlynthe 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 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. Mingus' music has meaning in so many different layers.