On paper, trombonist Joe Fiedler might seem like he has a serious case of multiple personality disorder. When the sun is up, Fiedler works as music director for Sesame Street, crafting song arrangements and incidental music cues. When the sun goes down, though, a different beast emerges: a trombonist who’s steeped in the extended techniques of the avant-garde, has recorded a tribute album to trombone multiphonics master Albert Mangelsdorff, and was an early member of legendary pianist Cecil Taylor’s large ensemble.
But when you talk to Fiedler, you learn that his wide variety of musical activities stem from his singular aesthetic, which observes no boundaries between old and new, inside and outside, seriousness and playfulness. This Saturday, October 12th, Fiedler brings his “Big Sackbut” brass quartet to The Jazz Gallery for a night of music celebrating the release of the group’s new album, Sackbut Stomp (Multiphonics Music). We caught up with Fiedler by phone to talk about how the group came about and where the humor in his music comes from.
The Jazz Gallery: Why did you want to put together a low brass quartet and how did you find these particular players?
Joe Fiedler: I’ve always been intrigued by saxophone quartets. In my formative years in the ’80s, there were a lot of saxophone groups, like the World Saxophone Quartet, the 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, and the Microscopic Septet. I was being drawn to more avant-garde stuff. I was a huge fan of the World Saxophone Quartet and I always thought, “How could this be applicable to the trombone?”
Over the years I wrote a little. I had a trio at one time with a saxophone, tuba, and trombone and we used to play on the street about 20-plus years ago. But it was many years later while I was doing a Broadway show—I’m not really from that world, but through the back door I did a show called In the Heights—and the other trombone player was Ryan Keberle. We just started talking about that concept [of a trombone quartet], and that I’d really like to get this working. He was actually curating a series at this place in Brooklyn, and he said, “Well, listen, I’ll give you a gig if you think you can get enough music together,” so that kind of gave me the final push to get some music together and call the musicians.
Over the years I had tried trombone quartets, and the one of the things that I really found missing versus the saxophone quartet is the baritone sax, which has such versatility with its all-present sound and really is the driving force. I felt that low trombones and bass trombones didn’t have that same kind of presence, so that’s why I decided to use tuba and three trombones.
For the second part of your question, all of the players that have been in the group at different times have been friends that I’ve played with over the years. We started with a certain few guys, then mutated, and now the group is Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla on trombone, and Marcus Rojas on tuba.
TJG: How do the players in the group affect the music you compose? Do you feel like you write for their strengths and personalities?
JF: The first type of music we did were arrangements of other songs I had composed, but not for this format. At that point, I was thinking about tailor-making each song to the personnel, but over time, I now clearly do that.
For selecting personnel in the first place, especially when there’s gonna be no rhythm section and the horn is gonna be on your face the whole time—even when you’re not soloing, you’re keeping the momentum and the texture going and playing background figures—I need players who were the strongest in New York, who could play an hour-long set without taking a break. Especially in small group jazz, there’s a lot of downtime: you take your solo then wait for all the other solos, so your chops are always fresh. In this context you have to be a bull, so that eliminated a huge percentage of the trombone players available.
But within that, in ultimate respect to the World Saxophone Quartet, what I really wanted—even though it’s not a collective group per se—I wanted each voice to have a powerful, fully-formed concept of jazz in their own context already. So when you look at Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett, and David Murray, those guys were titans of their instrument at that time and for all of them to be in the same group—that’s what I really wanted. I also didn’t want to have players with all the same approach. I found too many jazz groups that all came together as kindred spirits, like, “Well, I approach jazz this way and you do too, so let’s make some music together.” While that does bring some special elements, what I find lacking is that it becomes predictable. Especially in the harmonic vocabulary, the soloists from one to the next sound very similar. It’s more like apples and oranges—it’s not a bad thing per se, but I’m more interested when each time a guy takes their turn to solo, it becomes a completely unique thing.
So in terms of writing, it became very easy. I don’t necessarily write thinking, “Oh this is gonna be for Ryan, this is gonna be for Luis.” It becomes clear the other way; I just start writing something I dig, but then midway through the composition process, I think, “Oh, this is gonna be a good tune for me and this is gonna be a good tune for Marcus, or whomever.” It just becomes abundantly clear that this style or this format or these chord changes or lack of chord changes are gonna fit with someone’s personality.
TJG: One thing that is very present in a lot of your music is a sense of wit or playfulness. Do you consciously strive to write music with this character?
JF: At this point, I think it just kind of comes out in the wash. I think what I did when I was younger, what I chose to listen to, and compositions or solos I chose to transcribe—I think I’ve internalized that. Like anybody, you start ingesting the music you really love and then at some point, it just comes out organically from that perspective.
I’ve said this many times, but Ray Anderson has been my hero on the trombone. He has so much of that humor in his playing. Even though I don’t think I’d ever be compared to Ray Anderson—I think how we play is very different—in terms of inspiration, he’s been the main guy. I remember reading an interview with him when I was still in college in DownBeat or some magazine, and he was talking about that [humor]. At that time, I don’t think I had a hard grasp on the thought of why I was drawn to the humor, and he kept using the word “burlesque,” which I loved. But over the years, I’ve found that this kind of playing has a real joyfulness. I don’t want to get up on my soap box, but I find that sadly missing in jazz today—and I’m all for serious music and pushing boundaries. My music is serious, and if you analyze the nuts and bolts of what’s going on, there’s serious composition and learning and studiousness.
I was watching some YouTube clips the other night of Al Gray, the trombone player with Count Basie from the ’70s, and just watching the other players grinning, beaming from ear to ear, watching him blow. There’s nothing playful about it—it’s just a driving blues solo—but I think there is a part of me at this point in my career, getting close to 50, I want to bring that character to the front of what I’m doing even though it mostly comes out organically. If there’s a choice to be made in a composition to go one way or the other, I’d rather go the way of accessibility and fun and playfulness. For me, that’s really the vital part that’s missing from a lot of the jazz happening today.
TJG: Does the fact that guys like you and Ray Anderson make such witty music suggest that the trombone is an inherently fun or playful instrument?
JF: That’s a really good question. I think it got pigeonholed a little bit in an earlier time with the slide. People used it for creative purposes throughout history, like Spike Jones and all those gliss-y things that happened in circus music. There’s a segment of people that associate the trombone with some comedic things, and in the early days of jazz—some younger guys like Ryan [Keberle] and Jacob Garchik really harp on this—the trombone was one of the early stars of jazz as an instrument. There were huge records with J.C. Higginbotham and Kid Ory; these guys were superstars of the genre. Even through big bands with Dorsey and Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden. The fact that it’s looked at as some shticky instrument is laughable to me, but I do think J.J. Johnson and his approach—to not use the gliss aspect of the slide at all and to not use the vibrato that was associated with most trombone players in order to play modern jazz—that technical departure changed the direction of the trombone forever. Guys were playing faster and cleaner, more like saxophonists, and there are guys who are doing that now—who with their technique can play as fast as any saxophone player—but they play very un-trombonistically, and that’s no problem.
But what Ray is still in touch with is that the early jazz trombonists were trying to emulate vocalists. To get that vocal quality, you can slide down to a note, or gliss up to something, or use [slide] vibrato. If you don’t use the slide, you’re missing out on that expressiveness, on one of the best parts—if not the best part—of the trombone.
Come see Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut, featuring Fiedler, Ryan Keberle, and Luis Bonilla on trombone and Marcus Rojas on tuba, shake the foundations of The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, October 12. Sets at 9 and 10:30 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here.