Trombone Trilogy: Bill Cantrall, Marshall Gilkes and Steve Wiest

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Among the brass family, the trombone hasn't won as prominent a position in jazz as has the trumpet. The stereotypical image of a jazz musician could, until very recently, be said to have been that of a trumpeter in a dim-lit bar shrouded in smoke—a signature of film noir. The trombone isn't steeped in the same kind of mythology as the trumpet, but it's nonetheless an instrument which—with its fat, mellow sound—lends itself well to jazz.

Evidence of the instrument's qualities is given by excellent releases from trombonists/bandleaders Bill Cantrall, Marshall Gilkes and Steve Wiest. What these three leaders have in a common is a talent for combining the raw, swinging aspect of the instrument with a touch of lyrical sensibility—there's a sense of trombone tradition at work that goes from Kid Ory through Jimmy Knepper, Grachan Moncur and Bob Brookmeyer.

Bill Cantrall
Up Swing Records

Bill Cantrall cut his teeth on the Chicago scene playing with such diverse musicians as saxophonist Von Freeman and guitarist Jeff Parker. Besides playing bop and experimental music, Cantrall has also delved deep into salsa; he clearly knows his way around a diversity of genres. On Axiom, he explores a program of self-penned tunes and two standards ("After You" by Cole Porter and "Tangerine" by Victor Shertzinger and Johnny Mercer).

To help him fulfil the vision of a perfect hard bop-ensemble, Cantrall has enlisted the talents of trumpeter Ryan Kisor, saxophonists Sherman Irby and Steve Dillard and the rhythm section of pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Montez Coleman.

The music is packed with melodic punch and tight interplay. The ensemble takes twist and turns on bop classics like the title track and "Torrent," but there's also room for introspection, as evidenced by the gently moaning "Halfway House" and the romantic "Shanice," where the different textures of sax, trombone and trumpet makes for a rich mosaic of musical colours. As a composer, Cantrall avoids ornamental flash. Instead, he concentrates on making memorable melodies where the trombone takes the lead in wonderful sheets of sound.

Marshall Gilkes
Lost Words
Alternate Side Records

Another leader residing in the area of hard bop is Marshall Gilkes but whereas Cantrall kicks things off with his band glowing, Gilkes favours a more subtle approach by starting his album with the elegiac "Crossover Intro". Things speed up with the composition "The Crossover," where the band kicks in. After being lulled into the sweet bliss of the gently caressing brass, the high-octane groove of the band is something of a mood-changer, but it works.

The rhythm section of pianist Jon Cowherd, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn, and the frontline of Gilkes and trumpeter/flugelhornist Michael Rodriguez, know how to change tempi on a plate and the ebb of flow of Cowherd's piano is a joy to hear.

The frontline, without reeds, allows one to enjoy the delicate playing of the brass instruments. Gilkes and Rodriguez compliment each other perfectly and tunes like "Five Nights" and "End in Sight" are ideal vehicles for their sophisticated blowing; but they are also genuinely memorable tunes. Gilkes can play fast as lightning, but he still maintains melodic ideas and rhythmic elasticity. Stylistically, the music makes references to Latin jazz, gospel and even drum 'n' bass—"Lost Words" thus covers a beat reminiscent of electronic music. The general feeling, however, is tight, swinging hard bop played in a contemporary vein.

Steve Wiest
Out of the New
Arabesque Records

Whereas Cantrall and Gilkes remain firmly planted in the tradition of trombone-led hard bop, Steve Wiest takes a more eclectic path on Out of the New. From a Latin-tinged interpretation of Coldplay's "X & Y," with rollicking piano courtesy of Stefan Karlsson, to takes on music composed by the likes of Sting, Green Day and Aerosmith, Wiest surrenders to a musical curiosity where the emotional spectrum ranges from relaxed playfulness, as evidenced in the breezy take on Sting's tune "Seven Days," to the melancholic ache of the intro to "Defying Gravity," by Stephen L. Schwartz, that brings to mind Bill Evans' "Peace Piece."

Included with the album is a wonderfully detailed set of liner notes (more than 12 pages), wherein Wiest explains that the vision of his project was "to find unusual source material—the more unusual the better." While Wiest has succeeded in finding obscure material, there isn't necessarily a guarantee that the material could work in jazz context. Happily, thanks to the interpretive capabilities of the leader and his players, it does. The fat, brassy sound of the trombone proves to be an unlikely but successful way of exploring the tune "In Your Honor" by the Foo Fighters, and guitarist Fred Hamilton makes sure that some of the rock flavour is preserved by adding distorted guitar.

Overall, it proves to be a successful strategy, taking the pop hits of yesterday and possibly forging some of the jazz classics of tomorrow. Wiest shows that the trombone isn't only involved in preserving and expanding the legacy of hard bop and swing. He demonsrates that the instrument can also be part of the post-modern transformation of genres, while still retaining its identity within the greater jazz legacy.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Axiom; Minor Transgression; Shanice; Torrent; After You; Like I Said; Halfway House; Maker's (One); Maker's (Two); Tangerine.

Personnel: Bill Cantrall: trombone; Ryan Kisor: trumpet; Sherman Irby: alto saxophone; Stacy Dillard: tenor saxophone; Rick Germanson: piano; Gerald Cannon: bass; Montez Coleman: drums.

Lost Words

Tracks: Crossover Intro; The Crossover; Late Arrival; Lost Words; Five Nights; Titeuf; What's Next; End in Sight.

Personnel: Marshall Gilkes: trombone; Michael Rodriguez: trumpet and flugelhorn; Jon Cowherd: piano; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Clarence Penn: drums.

Out of the New

Tracks: X & Y; Seven Days; Walk This Way; Wake Me Up When September Ends; Shiver; It's You I Like; Defying Gravity; In Your Honor.

Personnel: Steve Wiest: trombone; Fred Hamilton: guitar; Lynn Seaton: bass; Stefan Karlsson: piano; Ed Soph: drums.

Visit Bill Cantrall , Marshall Gilkes and Steve Wiest on the web.

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