September 17, 2001
Nine Winds NWCD 0241
There's no dispute that Rochester, N.Y.-based trumpeter Paul Smoker is getting down to the brass tacks with this release. Brass reality, for him, involves showcasing the many textures and colors that can be produced from the standard instruments of a military band: trumpets, valve trombone, bass trombone, tuba and percussion. Oh, and using his own compositions as well.
How successful is it? Well, after a little bit of getting used to, you don't notice the lack of strings or reeds. In fact it may even induce some trend spotters to investigate the work of brass band king John Philip Sousa to see if he created any riffs there they can cop.
They won't get very far of course. For Sousa (1854-1933), who knew nothing but the European tradition, wrote marches and operettas for massed brass ensembles that may have featured 76 trombones. Smoker and his three cohorts, on the other hand, are all improvisers familiar with jazz, improv and New music.
Brassman Herb Robertson has honed his craft with everyone from Barry Guy's New Orchestra to Lou Grassi's PoGressions; bottom man David Taylor recorded with Julius Hemphill; while percussionist Phil Haynes is a "downtowner" who has worked extensively with tenorist Ellery Eskelin as well as the two trumpeters featured here. Smoker, has been playing his highly individualistic music for more than 20 years, sometimes with Anthony Braxton, and is also a member of the more straightahead Fonda-Stevens band.
His take on massed brass draws on a few unexpected sources. These include echoes of Charles Mingus' BLACK SAINT AND THE SINNER LADY in the bass trombone parts on "Waltz", Gil Evans' innovative brass arrangements on OUT OF THE COOL for "Fanfare & Procession" and with "Alice's Legacy", tinges of jazzy Klezmer that bring to mind Kurt Weill.
"Legacy" may be the most fully realized piece here, as the melody jigs along with all the tones that can be created by a brass section. One moment the trumpets are mellow; the next producing air kisses from their mouthpieces or stallion whinnies. With a subterranean ostinato methodically advancing from Taylor's tuba, the trumpets turn heraldic, except for the time it seems as if one — Smoker? — is about to play a bebop ballad. Of course the question of who Alice is, and what her legacy is remains unanswered.
Frustratingly, many of the other titles operate — or don't — in similar fashion. "Waltz", is anything but, although it is slightly more straightahead than some of the other compositions, with an impressive blend of brass tones. Later, vocal cries and fortissimo trumpeting vie with a more legato counter melody from the valve trombone. "Phil's Blues" isn't particularly bluesy, though it does feature Haynes, but perhaps no more than some of the other pieces. It also showcases some tailgate target practice from Taylor, understated riffing trumpets and some trading of fours from the tubas. Moreover, the definition of fractals: "extremely irregular curves or shapes that repeat themselves at any scale on which they are examined" could apply to the textures of many more tunes that the two that are named that way.
In short, your appreciation for the disc will depend on how much of a brass fancier you are. If you live, breathe and talk about shining trumpets, trombones and tubas, this CD may be your lifeline. Other may be impressed, but approach it more cautiously.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Solo Prelude 2. Fractals Part 1 3. Waltz 4. Fanfare & Procession 5. Harmon City 6. Phil's Blues 7. Alice's Legacy 8. Fractals Part 2 9. Coda: Brass Reality
Personnel: Paul Smoker, Herb Robertson (trumpet, valve trombone, E flat tuba); David Taylor (bass trombone, tuba); Phil Haynes (percussion)