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Jennifer Wharton: Not a Novelty


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: Jennifer Wharton: Not a Novelty
The eponymous debut from Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm broke the mold. There are no two ways about it. And while some may look at a statement like that and cry hyperbole, history begs to differ. With rare exception, the bass trombone—a horn forever typecast as an anchor—has been marginalized. So the idea of an ensemble featuring that denizen of the depths—a band playing music specifically commissioned to hinge on it, highlight it, and showcase the playing of one of its foremost practitioners—had no real precedent. But if anybody thought this group's maiden voyage was built around the allure of an oddity, they seriously missed the point. It was the work of an artist and outfit with a well-charted direction and strong intentions, and it left a clear message in its wake: This is not a novelty.

With this aptly titled sophomore release, Wharton returns to her rightful place at the center of the frame. Her instrument, while maintaining its noted sense of gravity, proves dexterous. And her bandmates—all carryovers from the previous album—are the tops. A veritable who's who of slide rulers possessing varied and unique sounds fills out the front line, with trombonists John Fedchock, Alan Ferber and Nate Mayland joining Wharton; and the rhythm section, comprised of pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Don Peretz, takes the concept of dynamism to a new level. Performing music composed and/or arranged by some of jazz's truly notable writers, this septet carves out its place as one of the most innovative ensembles on the scene.

This veritable cornucopia of trombone treasures hits the ground running with Eckroth's "BonGasmo." Impressed with the pianist's writing for Orquesta Akokán, Wharton sought out his pen to bring Cuban flair to her book. And with guest percussionist Samuel Torres spicing things up, stratified horn lines soaring across the canvas, and some timba turns in the mix, the composer hits the mark. As for the piece's position in the running order, Wharton is frank about that placement decision: "It was so joyous that I couldn't not open the album with it."

Remy Le Boeuf's "Face Value" follows, serving as a double entendre—an allusion to currency's claim and a metaphor for the genuine qualities inherent in Wharton's work. More importantly, it presents a music that encapsulates the concept of duende, with passion, longing and promise pouring forth. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Le Boeuf's statement is Ferber's arrangement of "Ice Fall," a beautifully sweeping Chris Cheek composition. Rolling along in three, it features a cavalcade of solos stretching across the entire trombone section. Then comes Ayn Inserto's "Blue Salt." A platform for individual and collective virtuosity that meets a swinging mandate, and a nod to a memory of margaritas at a first meeting with Fedchock, it proves to be a standout in a sea of wonders.

By the time the playlist reaches its midpoint coupling—Ferber's raunchy and wise "Union Blues" and Fedchock's glowing arrangement of Tori Amos' "Twinkle"—it's clear that the program's common thread, beyond the obvious, is diversity itself. The former, inspired by saxophonist Mark Turner's "Iverson's Odyssey" and featuring a melody that grew from a diminished exercise in Ferber's toolbox, marries earthy suggestions and intellectual curiosity in inimitable fashion. And the latter speaks to Fedchock's way with a ballad and creative genius in expanding on language. "It was a challenge to create additional and alternate harmony that could take advantage of the colors and nuance of the trombone ensemble while still retaining the tone of the original piece," he notes. "I left the melody completely untouched, honoring the essence of the song Jen fell in love with, but what surrounds that melody is a reimagining of how such a simple tune can evoke something bigger."

Carmen Staaf's Manta Rays," a musical manifestation of those oceanic inhabitants, leads the final four, conjuring swaying currents in its unfolding. Then Bonegasm returns to Latin quarters for Manuel Valera's "La Otra Mano," an episode in intrigue drawing rich hues from a broad palette, and shifts gears for the penultimate presentation—Fedchock's "Little Cupcake." Branching out from heartfelt beauty to something more complex, that original reflects the duality that the composer sees in this bandleader, who happens to be his wife. "The title comes from a pet name I call Jen in jest when she chooses to say something surprisingly off-color or 'unladylike,'" he explains. Wharton, corroborating that truth about her bawdy side, embraces the name and its winking humor.

As the album reaches its finale, it seems like there's hardly anywhere else to go. But Wharton has one more card up her sleeve. Looking to her time as "an angsty teenager in the '90s," she turns to the music of Soundgarden via Darcy James Argue's arrangement of "The Day I Tried to Live." And with none other than the great Kurt Elling joining in to fill Chris Cornell's shoes and stop the show, Bonegasm ends this affair with grungy glory and spirit. If anyone requires evidence of staying power, it's all right here for the taking. Not a Novelty flies high on its basic assertion and leaves no doubt about Jennifer Wharton's authority.

Liner Notes copyright © 2024 Dan Bilawsky.

Not A Novelty can be purchased here.

Dan Bilawsky Contact Dan Bilawsky at All About Jazz.
Dan is a jazz journalist, jazz advocate, music educator, and lover of sounds.

Track Listing

Bongasm; Face Value; Ice Fall; Blue Salt; Union Blues; Twinkle; Manta Rays; La Otra Mano; Little Cupcake; The Day I Tried To Live.


Jennifer Wharton
trombone, bass
John Fedchock
Nate Mayland
Alan Ferber
Evan Gregor
bass, acoustic
Additional Instrumentation

Samuel Torres: percussion (1, 8); Kurt Elling: vocals (10).

Album information

Title: Not A Novelty | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Sunnyside Records


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