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Brett Sroka

Brett Sroka

When trombonist Brett Sroka recorded his debut CD, Hearsay (Fresh Sound New Talent), he and his five bandmates had only played one club date together, and inclement weather kept drummer Eric Harland from one of the two practices prior to the session. Nevertheless, the lack of intensive preparation brought out the spontaneous best in the band, which also includes trumpeter Avishai Cohen, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart, pianist Jason Moran and bassist John Sullivan.

Hearsay isn’t jam-session material, though. The CD is filled with detailed but open arrangements that allow for group interplay as much if not more than individual solos. Attention to ensemble playing and compositional form have been gaining popularity among up-and-coming music-school grads, and Manhattan School of Music alumnus Sroka is no exception. Sroka’s pensive “A Sound Caresses the Breast of the Negress,” for example, has a freedom that allows the players to fluctuate between soloist and accompanist. On this tune, Moran switches from acoustic to electric piano, which creates a moody texture together with the strong harmonies of the three horns. Moran sits out on a version of Charlie Shaver’s “Undecided,” where the group plays with tempo like Miles Davis’ legendary ’60s quintet, beginning slow and cautiously before picking up serious speed. “Beloved” jettisons the rest of the band in favor of a brief drums-and-‘bone duet where Harland rolls gently under Sroka’s inquisitive lines. The tune sounds like it could be spontaneous or composed, a quality for which the trombonist strives. “I like the idea of mixing it up, where you have something written or predetermined, with improvisation, so that it goes back and forth between the two,” he says.

This quality is apparent in the title track, a Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn composition that appeared as part of their “Deep South Suite” in the 1940s. The original piece consisted of an overture and the main theme, with no improvisation. The trombonist’s rearrangement focuses on the melody, and the band stretches out for nearly 14 minutes, allowing Sroka, Stewart, Cohen and Moran plenty of solo space. Sroka says he’s primarily a self-taught composer, mostly through studying his favorite scores and recordings by Ellington.

A promising debut, Hearsay confirms that Sroka is more interested in charting new musical territory than simply revisiting the traditions of J.J. Johnson. “My influences were more often sax players and trumpeters and composers,” the trombonist says, “hopefully helping me to not sound like any other ‘bone player.”

Originally Published