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A jazz guitarist with a penchant for provocation once called the guitar "the lamest jazz instrument... besides the trombone." The big horn, with its awkard slide and low, nasal sound, is certainly a jazz underdog. Its important role in big bands is indisputable, but it is generally not thought of as a frontman instrument. In other words, there’s never been a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane of the trombone. Thanks to the unwieldy mechanics of the instrument, trombonists typically haven’t been able to negotiate chord changes and fast tempos as fluidly as a sax or trumpet or pianist can. As a result, the trombone has not achieved the kind of iconic status in jazz that we associate with, say, the tenor saxophone.
But Conrad Herwig threatens to demolish all that. His technical facility is astounding. On his second Criss Cross release, Osteology, he recruits fellow trombonist Steve Davis of Chick Corea & Origin fame to complete his frontline. He didn’t name the record "osteology" — the study of bones — for nothing. The session comes across as a kind of trombone manifesto. If you’re thinking that two trombones up front might sound clunky and colorless, think again. This record is burning; it sounds more like a live show than a studio date. David Kikoski is on piano, James Genus is the bassist, and Jeff "Tain" Watts is behind the kit.
It’s remarkably easy to tell Herwig and Davis apart. Herwig is the more flamboyant of the two, tending toward the higher register and brandishing a brighter tone. Davis, favoring lower and fewer notes and a mellower tone, usually solos after Herwig. The disc opens with a seldom-played Coltrane number, "Syeeda’s Song Flute." Other non-originals include Joe Henderson’s Caribbean-style "Fire"; a clever and unusually brisk 6/8 reading of "It Ain’t Necessarily So"; the oft-played but wonderful ballad "You Don’t Know What Love Is"; and a blindingly fast "Devil May Care," on which Kikoski solos with only his right hand, in the manner of Herbie Hancock on Miles Smiles.
Three Herwig originals complete the program. A contemplative latin groove grounds "Kenny K.", a moving tribute to the late Kenny Kirkland. Fittingly, piano is front and center, with Kikoski soloing first. "First Born," which gets my vote for best track, is a medium blues that recalls Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner on Blue Note. Genus and Tain lock in and swing furiously. And "Osteology" closes the record with a fleet dual-trombone line over a breakneck swing tempo; Herwig and Kikoski solo at the peak of their respective powers.
There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here in terms of material; it’s as straightforward a hard bop/post-bop menu as can be imagined. But the performances are outstanding and the energy is consistently high. The two trombonists surpass, to a startling degree, the supposed limitations of their instrument, supported by one of the most explosive rhythm sections I’ve heard on record in a while. Interestingly, Kikoski and Tain did not gel as well on Kikoski’s own Criss Cross effort The Maze. This time the ferocity just doesn’t let up. ~David R. Adler, 1/13/00