Last Minute Gifts
Louie 019

Because of his long tenure in New York, many people forget that Ornette, Coleman and his first associates like Don Cherry, initially forged his influential early quartet style on the West Coast.

Reminiscent of that freebop breakthrough, trumpeter Rob Blakeslee’s CD serves notice that there are still plenty of innovators — and innovations — on tap three hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. Firmly in what most non-neo-cons would call the modern mainstream, this session offers six last minute gifts of fine playing and composing.

Blakeslee has spent the past 30 years in the West, adding his trumpet and flugelhorn licks to aggregations led by the likes of reedmen Anthony Braxton, John Carter and especially Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. His regular rhythm section consists of Vancouver-based bassist Clyde Reed, also a member of that city’s NOW orchestra and Corvallis, Org.-based drummer Dave Storrs. Storrs seems to be able to play with one hand, engineer with the other and run the record label on which this disc was recorded simultaneously.

Sparkplug here, however, is Portland, Ore.-based trombonist Michael Vlatkovich. A Blakeslee associate in Golia’s Large Ensemble, he has performed on TV and movie soundtrack and worked with other exploratory musicians such as drummer Gerry Hemingway and another long-time Coleman associate, cornetist Bobby Bradford.

Tunes on the disc, all composed by Blakeslee, range from the prancing to the plodding, with most dependent on unison lines from the two brassmen, reminiscent of a more modern version of the combo trumpeter Clark Terry and trombonist Bob Brookmeyer co-lead in the early 1960s. Vlatkovich’s style would never be confused with the cool, valve trombone execution of Brookmeyer, however. One of those rare bone surgeons who seemed to have absorbed both gutbucket and free playing while ignoring the mechanical technicians of the bop and cool era, every time he solos he seems to bring out a more aggressive personality from the leader. Chief achievement is the seemingly effortless counterpoint and chorus trading in which they indulge.

Vlatkovich has a sense of humor too. In between his tempo changes on “Moss People” what sounds like a snatch of “Dixie” works its way into his solo, and isn’t that “The Twist” that gets referenced in the midst of a longer improvisation on “Huff Creek Road”? Elsewhere the sounds he produces are more in the trumpet than trombone range.

Most comfortable in mid-range, Blakeslee can also play entire choruses in a high register, but in a logical, song-building way. He’s no showoff Maynard Ferguson clone. Thus when his tone turns sour as it does on “Megan Tugboat”, you know that’s an effect, not intonation problems. Generally he sounds better at quicker tempos as well, often seconded by the bass or as part of the mellow, unison blends he and the trombonist create.

Although many of the performances call to mind Coleman’s earliest bands, with the aggregation returning to snatches of the theme throughout, “Huff Creek Road”, the longest track at almost 12 minutes, actually appears closer to some of Pharoah Sanders early-1970s LPs. Beginning with what sound like bells being rattled, it resolves itself into a steady Africanesque cadence courtesy of Reed’s plucked bass. After the horns jump and skip over one another, it ends with Vlatkovich pumping out a Spanish vamp over bowed bass and wiggling percussion.

The bassist’s buzzy solo there must be another effect, for neither he nor the drummer go in for extended techniques or long solos anywhere else on the disc, preferring to make their points by remaining understated and the background.

LAST MINUTE GIFTS may be the perfect gift for followers of any of the musicians or those that need to be reminded of the healthy scene in the Northwest. However a little more looseness, sweat and variety of tempos would have created a better product. Perhaps the different textures that would have come with a reed player would have negated some of the sameness.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Moss People 2. Megan’s Tugboat 3. Gilmore’s Boys 4. It’s Later Than You Think 5. Huff Creek Road 6 Advice From A Pufferfish.

Personnel: Rob Blakeslee (trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion); Michael Vlatkovich (trombone); Clyde Reed (bass); Dave Storrs (drums, percussion)