Artist Feature

Samuel Blaser
By Ken Waxman

Swiss-born trombonist Samuel Blaser maintains strong North American ties that extend far beyond the musicians on Spring Rain (Whirlwind), his newest CD. While the disc, dedicated to Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) feature all-American backing from keyboardist Russ Lossing, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Gerald Cleaver, one of his frequent trans-Atlantic trips bring him to NYC this month for a series of gigs with other long-time associates such as drummer Harris Eisenstadt, bassist Michael Bates and tenor saxophonist Michael Blake – all Canadians. “It’s like a big family” says Blaser, 33. “I like to draw upon the same members in many of my bands.”

Blaser who also maintains a long-timer, as yet-unrecorded European working trio with French guitarist Marc Ducret and Danish drummer Peter Bruun, has kept up close ties with this continent since the period in the mid-aughts when he lived in Brooklyn while studying, courtesy of a Fulbright Scholarship, for a master’s degree music at SUNY in Pace, NY. The trombonist doesn’t limit himself to any one style either. In Berlin he writes advanced compositions and plays in new and early music ensembles. Recent CDs reflect this as well. Before Spring Rain, Fourth Landscape (Nuscope) consisted of originals by Blaser and the other trio members: French pianist Benoit Delbecq and American drummer Gerry Hemingway, while Mirror to Machaut (Songlines), featured his compositions influenced by early Renaissance composers, interpreted by himself, Lossing, Gress and Hemingway plus Belgian bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst. “I really like timbres of clarinet and trombone together,” declares Blaser, who works frequently with Vancouver clarinetist François Houle

Even as a child in his hometown La Chaux-de-Fonds, he was attracted to “New York energy”, says Blaser, although that city of 40,000 was an artistic centre Part of a music-loving family, he grew up listening to his family’s record collection which ranged from opera to Harry Belafonte and Ray Charles. He became fixated on studying the trombone (“it was shiny, it had a slide and it made funny noises,” he recalls). Entering the local conservatory at nine, he graduated with a degree in classical trombone in 2001.

Along the way he was introduced to jazz. “I wanted to be a bebopper and spent time transcribing JJ Johnson solos”, he remembers. “The first records I bought were by Dave Brubeck, the Jazz Messengers and Herbie Hancock.” After graduation he freelanced, learned about section work and phrasing while in the Swiss Jazz School Big Band, attended master classes taught by the likes of Jimmy Heath and did two tours with the Vienna Art Orchestra. Even as far back as when he first played a blues, he was told it sounded like he was playing free. “So gradually I realized that I had more fun playing open music than anything else,” Blaser notes. “But there was no one in Switzerland doing that.” That awareness translated into a desire to become part of the freer New York scene. When he was accepted for the Fulbright, he was the first of three Swiss artists to win it.

In retrospect, he admits, there were some advanced improvisers in the alpine country and later on Blaser established an on-going relationship with one. For years, via his jazz-fan aunt, he had been hearing about drummer Pierre Favre, now 77, who was playing free jazz in Zürich in the ‘60s. “In 2008 I got in touch with him and said I’d like to play with him,” Blaser recalls. “He said set up a gig, we did at a local museum, and we’re still playing together seven years later.” Ironically too, he actually met Delbecq, with whom he now frequently performs, though a Canadian project involving Houle.

Houle and Ducret are two of the musicians for whom Blaser is writing concertos as part of his heightened interest in composition. He’s also composing a chamber piece for two violins. He doesn’t want to limit himself, he explains. Although he was a full-fledge jazzer in the conservatory, once he relocated to the US to study jazz he wanted to pay baroque and new music. Mirror to Machaut was an outgrowth of that baroque interest, he explains, but presenting early Renaissance styled sounds in a unique way. Spring Rain is more of the same. He had played Giuffre’s “Four Brothers” in student big bands, but when he later discovered the reedist’s other interests. I went crazy,” he recalls. “I can relate to him because he did all kinds of things”. Although the five compositions by Giuffre and Carla Bley were recorded by Giuffre’s trio with Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, Blaser’s instrumentation, arrangements and approach are nothing like the those versions. “There’s no point in playing anything that’s too close to the originals, “he declares. “That’s why I asked Russ to play all the keyboards available in the studio.”

Blaser’s two solo trombone tracks on Spring Rain are part of an avenue he plans to pursue further. He already has a new solo trombone CD album ready for release. Plans are to link the 18 compositions and improvisations with a documentary plus drawings. “It’s hard to play solo on a trombone because it’s monophonic instrument,” he reveals. “It doesn’t have sustain and it can’t play more than one note unless you use multiphonics. If you play for an hour you have to attract the ears of the audience without tiring them.” He has studied advanced technique with a respected trombone teacher in Paris, and has performed works by Vinko Globokar, Iannis Xenakis plus Luciano Berio’s supposedly difficult “Sequenza” for trombone. “I think everybody likes to play ‘Sequenza’ but the piece is known to be the hardest one in the trombone repertoire. It takes time to read the part and memorize it. The plunger is a difficulty, but it wasn't one for me since jazzers use it more that classical players.”

Blaser stays in touch with his audience and as part of a pre-order campaign for Spring Rain on his Web site, used sold t-shirts, album downloads, CDs, autographs and even private solo and band performances as lures. So far, however no one has come up with the cash for the private concerts though. “You have to be a big name”, he laughs.

Big name he may not be, but after nine solo albums, many concerts – 100 in the past two years alone with Ducret and Bruun – and his involvement in different musical styles, he’s busy and fulfilled. “I like playing baroque trombone; I like to perform with symphony orchestras; and I like jazz and improvisation,” he declares. His attention may sometimes be drawn elsewhere but he insists “I’ll always play jazz and improvised music. I have too much fun playing it to give it up.”

Recommended Listening:

• Samuel Blaser Quartet Boundless (hatOLOGY 2010)

• François Houle 5+1 Genera (Songlines 2012)

• Samuel Blaser Consort in Motion A Mirror to Machaut (Songlines 2013)

• Samuel Blaser Benoit Delbecq and Gerry Hemingway Fourth Landscape (Nuscope 2013)

• Samuel Blaser Spring Rain (Whirlwind Recordings 2015)

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2015