A master of trombone multiphonics in the tradition of Albert Mangelsdorf, and a successful arranger for TV, Joe Fiedler can cover huge aesthetic ground during the course of single performance. Fiedler’s home-base trio with bassist Rob Jost and drummer Michael Sarin can slide in and out of abstraction on a dime, while his low-brass quartet Big Sackbut showcases a diverse cast of top-notch players.
This month marks the release of Fiedler’s newest record as a leader, Like Strange (Multiphonics Music), which augments his working trio with saxophonist Jeff Lederer and guitarist Pete McCann. On Saturday, March 25th, Fiedler and his quintet will celebrate the release of the record at The Jazz Gallery with two sets of this new music. We caught up with Fiedler by phone to discuss his music’s new directions and how he thinks about combining highly-contrasting musical influences.
The Jazz Gallery: This record marks a bit of departure from your work with your trio or Big Sackbut. What made you want to write for a quintet like this one?
Joe Fiedler: It’s a pretty simple answer, really. I’ve had the trio for thirteen years, I believe, and we’ve done four records. I love playing with those guys. But compositionally, I felt like I needed to step away from things like using multiphonics and other extended techniques to fill the space and make things interesting. I was hearing richer harmonies and textures, so I decided to keep the same trio, but then bring on a couple of extra players—people I’ve played with in different sideman situations for twenty-some years. I wasn’t really looking for a specific instrumentation, but more for specific creative voices, so Jeff Lederer and Pete McCann were no-brainers. They’re guys I have a rapport with, and so I know the hookup will be right there. They can also range from freer playing to more inside playing.
TJG: What in particular about Jeff and Pete make them the right fit for this group? Why have you stayed close musical compatriots for so long?
JF: There’s definitely an intangible factor to it. With Jeff, one of the things we share is that as young guys, we shared a lot of influences—and those influences stay with you your whole career. I was always into a lot of saxophone players, and we both loved David Murray, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp. But if you talk to Jeff, he’ll say that his favorite instrument is the trombone, so we’ve dug a lot of the same trombone players as well. There’s just a lot of commonality there and as a result, both of our musics are grown out of the same pot, in their own ways. With that, I don’t have to explain what I’m trying to get at in a certain tune—he gets it.
Pete is just a freak of nature. He covers more terrain than just about anyone I know. He’ll play with singer-songwriters, and then he’ll play this super avant-garde gig, and then he’ll play with Darcy James Argue’s big band where the guitar book is really complex. He’s just a chameleon. Whereas Pete’s listening influences and definitely different than mine, he’s just a supportive player that no matter what I want to do, he’s able to follow. If I’m blowing a certain way, he gets it immediately and just comps so well. He’s one of the best guitar players on planet earth as far as I’m concerned.
TJG: In a lot of the tunes on the record, I was really struck by the rich harmonic palette and the clear song forms, compared to what you’ve done with the trio. Why do you think you were drawn to these kinds of materials at this point?
JF: This goes a bit back to some of my heroes as I was coming up, like David Murray and Ray Anderson. What always struck me about those guys was that they were able to play tunes—both had great standards records—and also have this incredible avant-garde creative voice that they could fit within that. While I was a young guy, I couldn’t do that. I would play my crazy free stuff all over the tunes and it sounded awful. As I was developing my own creative voice as a composer at the start, I had other thoughts in my head. I wanted to play with much more angularity, and a lot of the compositions were driven that way. But I’ve always wanted to get to a point—and I don’t know if I necessarily want to stay in this place—where I was writing more traditional songs, things that had a lot of flexibility. I love that in Mingus’s music you can have this blues-based tune and then have this really free solo in there and then have a really tonal solo in there. I also loved the accessibility that Murray or Anderson or Archie Shepp had. Avant-garde fans loved them, and mainstream jazz fans would dig them too. Not that I’m naive enough to think I’m going to be some jazz star, but I like the fact that I can play this record for my mom and she would dig it, versus for the other records she would be like, “Oh that’s nice, dear.” But again, it’s without compromising my vision, and especially my improvising. That doesn’t change from record to record, it’s just how it gets set up by the tunes.
TJG: You bring up an interesting point about this kind of inside-outside playing in that it’s not just playing out lines over inside harmony. It’s really quite difficult to set up that kind of experimental improvisation and have it make sense within the form. At this point, how do you as a soloist make these contrasting ideas fit together in a performance?
JF: I started out being really into bebop as a young guy, and to be honest, I never really followed through in the mastery of the bebop language. I’d say about midway through my understanding, I got captured by the avant-garde and was into free playing. I worked for years developing a more textural voice ahead of my harmonic voice. It’s interesting then as I’ve gotten older, I’ve worked more on inside playing than outside playing, even though I don’t want to be a bebop player or a hard bop player. I want to be able to set up my out playing with a much more compelling inside playing. I find that it gives the extended techniques and textural elements a much greater clarity compared to when that’s your only palette. Being able to start with some inside harmonic and rhythmic ideas and then letting the improvisation flow out is a really compelling artistic statement.
TJG: In terms of the writing the texture of the band’s front line with Jeff, were you inspired by any particular trombone and tenor sax pairings?
JF: I do have favorites, but I would have to say that I wasn’t really thinking in those terms. I mean, there’s some early Sonny Rollins and J.J. Johnson records that I absolutely love, and then there’s some later J.J. Johnson with a young Ralph Moore on tenor sax that I love. Like in early bebop, trumpet and alto sax are such a good pairing because the range of the instruments are really similar, as is tenor and trombone. I love getting the rub between two voices, like with half-step harmonies with the two lead voices and creating tension that way; whereas with an alto player, it would be much more difficult to do that. You’d have to be in a very specific range the whole time to make the overlap work. I was thinking more about having another voice in the trombone’s register versus a tenor saxophone in particular, per se.
What makes Jeff a really good foil for me is that I’ve always been blessed with a really good high register, and Jeff’s altissimo register is fantastic too. So some of the heads for the tunes are way up into the treble clef and to my ears, they don’t sound forced because both of us have a command of that register. That gave me a lot of flexibility of where to put the tunes.
TJG: If you played those heads at the same pitch but with a trumpet and alto sax, it wouldn’t have the same edge and intensity because of where it sits in their ranges.
JF: Oh yeah—that’s a great insight. I’ve spent all these years playing in Latin bands, like with Eddie Palmieri. One of the reason that Eddie digs my playing is that I can bring it in the high register and get above a loud salsa orchestra. It’s trained me well.
TJG: Speaking of Latin music, the tune “Tuna Fish Cans” has a bit of an Afro-Cuban rhythmic vibe. Were you specifically drawing from your experience in these kinds of bands?
JF: I think so. I think that stuff lives in me a bit. I was talking to some friends a couple of weeks ago about this. Many times of the last twenty years, I’ve thought about making a Latin Jazz record. And I’ll get about halfway into thinking about it, and then I’ll think, “I love the whole style of Latin Jazz, but my own creative voice isn’t born out of that place.” I really made my living playing Latin music over jazz for many years because of work opportunities, so those rhythms and progressions live in me, and definitely when I’m writing tunes. But I definitely wanted to have a looser quality, rather than being strictly Latin, like letting the tempos slip and slide a little bit during the improvisations, getting some breath and cadence in the rhythmic feel. It’s a bit like how I was talking about inside and outside playing earlier.
TJG: A lot of the tunes on the album—”Tuna Fish Cans” and “Ladybug in My Notebook” come to mind—have these curious and witty titles. Do these refer to particular stories or jokes, or are they just evocative of the character of the tunes for you?
JF: I think each one is its own entity. I’ve had my wife name tunes by playing her a recording and asking her what it makes her think of. She actually named the track “Go Get It” on the record. “Ladybug in My Notebook” was a literal thing—I have this small notebook where I’ll write down ideas and the beginnings of tunes and I went to write something down and there was literally a ladybug in my notebook. Some are more esoteric, like “Tuna Fish Cans.” My wife is a well-known pilates teacher, she teaches a lot of other pilates teachers. One of her catch phrases is “tuna fish cans,” which is when she tries to get her students to visualize their lumbar spine as a stack of tuna fish cans. The tune came out with five or six different sections with a little breath between each one, like the parts of a spine. It’s a reach, but it’s more of an inside-my-house joke.
The Joe Fiedler Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, March 25th, 2017. The group features Mr. Fiedler on trombone, Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone, Pete McCann on guitar, Rob Jost on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.