Catching up with trombonist Conrad Herwig isn’t easy. But in between recording sessions for a new album and preparations for a trip to a jazz festival in Uruguay, he paused long enough for a telephone interview – and a discussion of his musical career focusing on his recording projects, The Latin Side of Miles Davis
and The Latin Side of John Coltrane
. “We just finished the recording sessions for another volume of Coltrane tunes we’re going to call Que Viva Coltrane
,” explains Herwig. “Now I’m getting ready to head for the airport to go to Uruguay and play at a jazz festival there. Paquito D’Rivera is the musical director, and I’ve been playing with him since 1983, so I’m looking forward to it. Things are a little hectic, but I can’t complain. For a musician to be too busy – there’s no such thing!”
Herwig has been very busy on the jazz scene since his college days at the renowned University of North Texas jazz studies program. While in school, he played club gigs with noted pianist Red Garland at clubs in the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth area. After graduation, Herwig joined Clary Terry’s big band, and then moved on to the big bands of Buddy Rich, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mel Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie’s United Nations Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band. He also worked in smaller bands with the likes of Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette and many Latin groups –including bands led by legends Eddie Palmieri and Mario Bauza.
Herwig has also released over a dozen recordings as a leader since 1987 – including the Grammy-nominated The Latin Side of John Coltrane in 1996. The soon-to-be-released The Latin Side of Miles Davis recording and tour underscore Herwig’s intense interest in the crossroads where Latin music and jazz meet. According to Herwig, that crossroads is well traveled – going back to the early days of jazz and New Orleans pianist Jellyroll Morton.
“Jellyroll Morton always used to talk about the Latin tinge in jazz,” states Herwig. That’s a good point, because he was actually born in Haiti and raised by Cuban godparents. So Cuban musical influences both harmonically and rhythmically are inherent in his music. And that Latin musical influence on jazz has been happening over the decades. Charlie Parker and Machito, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo – the connection is undeniable. It’s a very organic thing. What you realize is nothing is ever invented new. Instead, I believe there’s a constant rediscovery of characteristics that are inherent in the music already. Some people look for the differences in styles of music. I look for the connections.”
For Herwig, his exploration of those connections between jazz and Latin music began when he first arrived in New York and had the chance to play with Mario Bauza, the Cuban-born bandleader who was instrumental in bridging the gap between the two musical styles.
“When I was playing with Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie on concerts, “ recalls Herwig, “that’s when I met Paquito D’Rivera, Claudio Roditi and Eddie Palmieri. Mario Bauza really is the source – the link – connecting jazz and Latin, because he heard it and communicated it so strongly.”
Herwig interest in Latin music was also fueled by his friendship with trumpeter Brian Lynch, who had arrived in New York at about the same time. The instantaneous rapport they developed at jam sessions and in the bands of Akioshi and Palmieri – combined with their mutual interest in Latin music – laid the groundwork for Herwig’s The Latin Side of John Coltrane recording and the current The Latin Side of Miles Davis recording and tour.
“One of our goals we decided on a long time ago while in Eddie Palmieri’s band, was to explore the music of Coltrane and Miles in a Latin context,” says Herwig. “I always tell people if someone put a gun to my head and said all you can do is play Miles Davis and John Coltrane for the rest of your life, it wouldn’t be bad. Hey, it could be the Latin side of Liberace... which would be a disaster!”
For Herwig, the connection between the music of Coltrane and Latin influences was apparent in both Coltrane’s explorations of various world music styles and in some of the bass line patterns in his compositions.