Conrad Herwig: Land of ShadowBy
Harkening back to the sextet configuration of Unseen Universe (Criss 1194), Herwig sees Land of Shadow as somewhat of an extension of the previous set. "The genesis of the whole thing was that I was working with Tim Hagans and we had so much fun together that I decided I wanted to do something with him," says the trombonist. "The coincidence was that I went to Temple University to do a master class and workshop that involved a tribute to Joe Henderson. I was performing with a student group and the saxophone teacher was Ben Schachter and he was just tearing it up. Then I found out that he and Tim were playing together there in Philly and all of a sudden it was just like synchronicity, and that's sort of how the front line came together."
The better known of Herwig's two lead partners, trumpeter Tim Hagans is an Ohio native who cut his teeth while working in the big bands of Kenton and Mel Lewis. And while his own Blue Note projects of recent have seen him solidifying the jazz mainstream, he's not afraid to embrace the electronic implications of Miles Davis' fusion work of the '70s as heard in his collaborations with Bob Belden. "I've just always loved his playing," Herwig says. "I mean, Woody Shaw is one of my favorite trumpet players and I think that Tim is an extension of that area that Woody laid down. He's just so fresh in his melodic choices and harmonic sophistication. Besides being a really good friend of mine, I just admire the uniqueness of his musicality."
As for tenor saxophonist Ben Schachter, it wouldn't be surprising to find this Philadelphia resident taking on a higher profile based on his performances here alone. A recipient of the 1999 Pew Fellowship for music composition, Schachter has performed with a host of contemporary leaders including Gary Bartz, Uri Caine, and Marc Ribot, not to mention leading his own group, Trio of Many. As Herwig tells it, "Ben is what I consider to be a 21st century musician in a lot of ways. The thing that I admire about him is that he's following his own path, combining certain older things and newer things."
Allied with Herwig since 1999's Osteology and somewhat of a house rhythm section for Criss Cross as it were, the trio of pianist David Kikoski, bassist James Genus, and drummer Jeff 'Tain' Watts needs little in the way of introduction, such is their expertise both as a unit and individually. "I feel blessed that I keep getting to play with these guys," Herwig enthuses. "David knows what I'm going to play before I'm going to play it. What I love about him is that he doesn't have a preconceived idea of what he's going to do; he reacts in the moment and so that gives me total freedom. Now James defines solid and he's the anchor in all the best ways. The thing is, to play with complex drummers is not the easiest thing in the world, but James is so solid and grounded that it gives a drummer like 'Tain' the freedom to play. Of course, 'Tain' is a virtuoso but he has a loving way of playing because he likes to make people around him sound better."
Taking on as much importance in the distinctiveness that permeates this present set as the musicians on hand are the original compositions that Herwig has penned specifically for this ensemble. As he tells it, "I have a tendency to play a much higher percentage of my own compositions for the one reason that it's easier to sound like yourself on your own tunes. The reason Coltrane sounded like Coltrane was because he played "Moment's Notice," and "Giant Steps," and "Countdown." In a way, it makes you vulnerable because you're opening yourself up for people to criticize the fact that not only is it your improvisation, but it's your music too. But personally, I'd rather open myself up to that. This is where I especially respect Gerry [Teekens], because he allows people to be themselves."
The straightforward ABA structure of "Lullaby of the Leaves" provides perfect fodder for Herwig's reworking, with the trombonist voicing the theme and Schachter providing the bridge. "What I'm looking for in a classic jazz tune is a format for improvisation," explains Herwig as to this chestnut's inclusion. "If a tune is so complex in its form that you can't solo over it, it may be played once in awhile but it never really becomes a classic for jazz improvisers to use. I'm picking tunes because I like them as formats for improvisation and this one satisfies that quality." Save for Genus, everyone gets a chance to blow over the changes.
A medium bossa groove propels "The Dream Master," the melody voiced in delicate counterpoint. "This comes from that genre I associate with Herbie Hancock's "Empyrean Isles," Herwig says. "It's got that straight eighth feel and is really juxtaposing the trumpet and sax against the bone and bass with that kind of ostinato whole step bass movement going between C minor and D minor there in the vamp." Indeed the structure goes for something different than the norm, including a mercurial bass solo that finds Genus humming along with some of his high register forays and a bit of collective improvisation at the closing.
Herwig sums up the essence of "Land of Shadow" by stating "it's basically a F minor blues." However, as with the majority of his works, there's a level of complexity that lies just under the surface that might not be apparent at first. "The inspiration for this comes from some particular records like Elvin Jones' Live at the Lighthouse and there's an album with Joe Farrell called Moongerms that I play a lot. That genre of music, that era, is really inspiring and I feel that even though it's soon to be 2003 we're still kind of getting to the [music of the] late 60's and '70s."
"Forbidden Pool" is sort of a modern ballad featuring the piano and trombone," Herwig explains. "The influence here for me comes from people like Chick Corea, Richie Beirach, and Keith Jarrett." Not only does Herwig show that his technical brilliance extends beyond up-tempo histrionics to the "heart on your sleeve" romanticism of a ballad, but Kikoski provides textbook support in a way that testifies to his value as a consummate accompanist.
The pace quickens for "Shadows of the Past," a staccato line perfectly voiced for our three lead horns. Following Herwig's opening gambit, Hagans, Schachter, and Kikoski get their turns in the solo spotlight. "Once again, this one is really influenced by the '70s thing, which I associate with Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman." He adds, "One thing about playing with Tain is that he came wanting to burn so hard and so the tempo was challenging, but I like that kind of challenge."
Duke Ellington's "Gypsy Without a Song" is one of the maestro's rarities, first taking its bow on the 1964 Impulse release McCoy Tyner Plays Ellington. "I put the harmony in a background for the horns and the melody in the piano and then we put it in a Latin groove," says Herwig. Following the trombonist's statement, Genus and Kikoski get to speak their piece before a reprise of the head.
It's Conrad right out of the gate for "Homeward Bound," a multifarious crash course that its composer calls "a blowing form going through a bunch of keys." "The point is that as post-Coltrane musicians we try to challenge ourselves with complex sets of changes because that's another form of expression and it keeps us on our toes." Schachter and Kikoski follow Herwig with solos of their own prior to a brief theme akin to Coltrane's "Countdown." Then Hagans comes in to blow over a short vamp, leading to the end of the performance and of this particular recital.
Taken as a whole, Land of Shadow is yet another advancement in Herwig's ongoing musical quest to reinvent himself and his music and it's far from hyperbole to suggest that it contains some of his finest recorded moments to date. Further attesting to the music's vitality, Herwig sums it up best when he says, "I feel like when I'm doing this stuff it sounds like 2002, but maybe it's our version of the '60s and '70s done in 2002. But to me, it still sounds fresh and it's who we are."
Liner Notes copyright © 2023 C. Andrew Hovan.
Land of Shadow can be purchased here.
Contact C. Andrew Hovan at All About Jazz.
An avid audiophile and music collector, Chris Hovan is a Cleveland-based writer / photographer / musician.
Lullaby Of The Leaves; The Dream Master; Land Of Shadow; Forbidden Pool; Shadows Of The Past; Gypsy Without A Song; Homeward Bound.
Conrad Herwig: trombone; Tim Hagans: trumpet; Ben Schachter: saxophone, tenor; David Kikoski: piano; James Genus: bass; Jeff Tain Watts: drums.
Title: Land of Shadow | Year Released: 2002 | Record Label: Criss Cross
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About Conrad Herwig
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