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Conrad Herwig: There's Nothing Else

Bob Kenselaar By

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People ask me, ‘How did a kid from Hawaii grow up to be a professional jazz trombone player?’ For me, the answer is simple. There’s just nothing else. That’s it.
Talking about some of his great influences in jazz, Conrad Herwig points out that it's important to look beyond their achievements on their instruments. "Sometimes during a musician's lifetime, people put so much emphasis on their virtuosity as a player that they don't really think about the vehicle of their expression—their compositions." Herwig was speaking of saxophonists John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, but the same could be said about Herwig himself. He's one of the foremost jazz trombonists of his generation, but he's also made his mark as a prolific composer and arranger, as well as a bandleader and an educator.

And what's especially notable, too, is that Herwig has developed a distinctive voice as a trombonist and composter in a variety of musical contexts. His started his professional career in 1980, touring with trumpeter Clark Terry's big band before going on to stints with big bands led by drummer Buddy Rich, pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and drummer Mel Lewis, in addition to putting in a number of years with the Frank Sinatra Orchestra. In the mid 1990s he began his long and continuing association with the Mingus Big Band, where he served as musical director for a time. In addition to his work with larger ensembles, Herwig has performed, recorded and toured with a number of small and mid-sized groups in contemporary, straight-ahead jazz contexts—both as a sideman and a leader. His experience includes work with such jazz masters as trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Red Garland and drummer Max Roach.

Herwig also developed solid experience in Afro-Caribbean music from the very beginning of his career. He started a close association with clarinetist Eddie Palmieri in the 1980s, and, as Herwig recalls, "In the late '80s and into the '90s, we were doing hundreds of salsa gigs a year. I'm proud to say that Eddie Palmieri has told me that I earned my salsa badge. There were times when I wondered if I was a jazz player playing salsa, or was I a salsero playing jazz." The trombonist's forays into salsa and Latin jazz also led to work with trumpeter Mario Bauza, percussionist Tito Puente and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera. Ultimately, this experience resulted in the highly successful series of recordings Herwig has made with ensembles he's led re-interpreting the work of classic jazz masters in a Latin jazz context, beginning with The Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place, 1996).

Less well-known is another side of Herwig—work that has ventured into avant-garde jazz, including experience with composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill and percussionist Rocker Warren Smith during the "loft jazz" scene in New York in the early '80s. Another collaboration in a similar vein especially memorable for Herwig is his early duo recording with pianist Richie Beirach, Intimate Conversations (Ken, 1990). Here, the two musicians used as the basis for jazz improvisation the musical language employed by such 20th-century European composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.

Herwig's three most recently released recordings as of this writing each reflect three sides of the trombonist, composer and arranger. A Voice Through the Door (Criss Cross, 2012) is firmly grounded in a straight-ahead jazz quintet context, made up entirely of original tunes by Herwig, with the exception of one standard he arranged. The Tip of the Sword (RadJazz, 2011), brings Herwig together with Richie Beirach and Jack DeJohnette in an adventurous trio setting, playing some explorational Herwig compositions. The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock (Half Note, 2010) is the latest of the trombonist's "Latinization" projects, with arrangements by Herwig and pianist Bill O'Connell.

All About Jazz: What inspired you to record A Voice Through the Door?

Conrad Herwig: The genesis of it is the relationship that I have with the musicians that are in the group. Ralph Bowen is my colleague on the faculty at Rutgers University, and I think of him as arguably one of the great jazz sax virtuosos. I don't want to use the word "underrated" because I think the word "underrated" is overrated. But I think he's just dynamite, a dynamic player and just an incredible colleague. We think alike. His office is 20 feet down the hall; we see each other every day. And I love the sound of trombone and tenor sax. I was a fanatic for the Crusaders back in the day, with Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder. I just love that sound. And as to the other guys in the band—Kenny Davis is another powerhouse. He's an incredible bassist and improviser. The way he solos, it's like a horn. He goes back to that lineage of bass players, to Paul Chambers and many others who have just impeccable lines and clean playing and perfect time. And Kenny's teaching at Rutgers, too, so it's a small world. Donald Edwards, our drummer—we've played together in the Mingus Big Band and the Mingus Dynasty. And Orrin Evans is a great friend and he's also a great friend of Ralph's. We've played together in the Mingus Big Band, recorded together, and I'm playing in Orrin's band now, the Captain Black Big Band.

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