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Rick Stepton: Off-The-Cuff Trombone

Nicholas F. Mondello By

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There's a fascinating—almost stunning—moment mid-way through Off-the-Cuff Trombone wherein the late Buddy Rich is accompanying and intently observing trombonist Rick Stepton as Stepton solos with great intensity and zeal. Perceptive eyes can see that Rich, the toughest of tough customers, is visibly and physically moved at what he's heard. It's a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the utmost respect of one musician to another. It is also one of the many intriguing moments in this videographic re-telling of Stepton's marvelous career in a discipline in which he not only excels but for which he also exudes respect and love.

Off-the-Cuff Trombone is a fascinating, impeccably produced one-hour documentary that is unique within the jazz bio-doc genre. Unlike the mundane, and in many instances, boring anecdotal norm—you know, the endless resume and name-dropping-like "I played with X, recorded with Y," or the fraudulently iconic "jazz lifestyle" pieces where scuffling and smoke haunt the talents within, this feature—no hagiography—while being musically rich, possesses a concomitant ton of humanity. By the film's end, one can easily understand the sincerity and love the trombonist has for the art, his employers, teachers, and most importantly, his audiences. Ditto on that for its film-maker.

Stepton is a smallish man with somewhat sad eyes who, like the aforementioned Rich, has left it all—viscerally and aurally -on bandstands worldwide. His is an energized, flame-thrower style more Vic Dickenson than Bill Watrous, although he can wrap his arms around balladic sweetness with the best of them. His appeal, as he narrates this excursion, is sincere, heartfelt, and devoid of any semblance of being disingenuous or what I might call "jazz bitterness." With Stepton what you get is just that—him.

The third in a line of family trombonists—Rick's grandfather played the axe and was the teacher of both Rick and his father—Stepton seemed destined for a trombonist's life. His six-decade saga included stints (and stunts) in town marching units, lesser-known "territory bands," (where a pink sleeper bus was "home") an Army band in Europe, and tenures with some of jazz's greatest big bands, including Lee Castle, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson and, the longest and most influential, his multiple stints with he of the infamous "bus tapes." The "Who's Who" of Stepton's career was indeed stellar, but, it was and is nothing compared to the enormity of who this fine brass artist was and is. And, while the era of the so-called big bands may have waned, it is obvious in this portrayal that Stepton has a Fort Knox of insights to offer today's musicians. And, based on Off-the—Cuff-Trombone , his cell will be ringing off the "hook."

In a rather karmic way, producer, Judith Lindstedt, also seemed destined to portray the Stepton Tales. The celebrated producer of hundreds video programs for Massachusetts public broadcasting, Lindstedt knew Stepton from elementary school. She also went on to a brilliant entertainment career as a jazz dancer, performing worldwide for audiences that included the Royal Family of Monaco, the Betty Grable Review, Hugh Hefner's Playboy Clubs, and many others. Lindstedt's entertainer's eye for the significant, the emotionally charged and impressionable carries over significantly in this production. The fly-on-the-wall scenes of Stepton verbally describing and paging through a meticulously maintained scrapbook and the interview segments with Stepton's mother, Beatrice are superb. And, since almost every story about the art-form requires a dollop of "jazz luck"—and in this case recovery and redemption—the pair's combined re-telling and graphic imagery of Stepton's multiple lip surgeries as a result of a dog bite seal the deal. Her production approach and values are "Red Carpet" worthy. Off-the-Cuff is anything but that. It is unique, resonant and viable art—as are its subject and observer. It's an hour well-spent. We can only hope that Stepton and Lindstedt, so dove-tailed artistically here—can take us along once more for the rest of Rick's "ride."


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