Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm: Bonegasm

Dan Bilawsky By

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The bass trombone occupies a unique niche, serving as that most powerful of pedal peddlers, the anchor of a big band's brass section, and the ballast stabilizing harmonies. Unfortunately, the instrument also holds status as a seriously pigeonholed force. While you can't argue with the usefulness of its robust, below-the-staff whole notes, this horn is made for more than heft. Jennifer Wharton, one of its finest practitioners, has been hip to that fact for some time, having held down the bass trombone chair in many a classical setting as well as some of jazz's leading large ensembles, including the Alan Ferber Big Band and Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. Now she's showing us what she can do out front.

This eponymous debut from Wharton's four-bone band focuses on material commissioned specifically to highlight the bass trombone and its communicative nature with its related tenor tribe. With Ferber, John Fedchock, and Nate Mayland by her side, she makes a strong case that her horn of choice deserves more leading roles within the ranks. This entire front line—and Wharton, in particular—reminds us that while a slide may only have seven positions, those numbers reveal worlds of possibility.

Opening on Edward Perez's "The Year Of Two Summers" (originally penned for the composer's own big band), Bonegasm puts everything out there: unison work, woven lines, solos aplenty, Latin zest, swing, metric shifts from 4/4 to 7/4, and vocal glee. Both the horns and the rhythm section—pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Evan Gregor, drummer Don Peretz and, in this one case, percussionist Mauricio Herrera—shine brightly throughout. Jim McNeely's aptly-named "Low Ball" follows, giving Wharton ample space to stretch in a sophisticated and (mostly) cooled-out environment.

Six of the seven remaining tracks highlight the composing and arranging chops of Wharton's slide-wielding partners in this band. The lone exception—"Other Angles"—is penned by Sara Jacovino, a rising star trombonist/composer heard regularly with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra and the Birdland Big Band. An opalescent and expansive waltz, it proves to be a highlight and a sign of her creative bent. Mayland and Ferber each contribute one original in the first half of the program—the former delivers the amped-up and raucously funky "Stellar" and the latter provides a reduction/rearrangement of "North Rampart," one of the most beautiful big band ballads to surface in recent times—and Fedchock puts his wisdom and legendary pen to good use by delivering four pieces. He provides a smart re-working of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," opening on Wharton's weighted statements, tapping into Latin and swing veins, and giving space for both ensemble and individual to shine; a"Tricotism" with soft-shoe brushwork, buoyant bass soloing, 'bone trades, and collective blowing; and the samba-esque "Impromptu," which tests Wharton as it bounces about with angular acuity. Then his take on the bluesy "Big Long Slidin' Thing," originally made famous by Dinah Washington, brings things to a close. It's a standout, as it marks Wharton's debut as a vocalist.

From afar, this album may seem like nothing more than a novelty project, but the music successfully argues against that thinking. Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm blows the doors wide open for the bass trombone. The horn itself may play from the bottom, but it can certainly operate at the top of the heap.

Track Listing: The Year Of Two Summers; Low Ball; Stellar; North Rampart; Softly As A Morning Sunrise; Other Angles; Tricotism; Impromptu; Big Long Slidin' Thing.

Personnel: Jennifer Wharton: bass trombone, vocals; John Fedchock: trombone; Nate Mayland: trombone; Alan Ferber: trombone; Michael Eckroth: piano; Evan Gregor: bass; Don Peretz: drums; Mauricio Herrera: percussion (1).

Title: Bonegasm | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records

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