Before & After: Michael Dease

The bona fide trombonist submits himself to his first listening session with JazzTimes

Michael Dease
Michael Dease (photo: Sara Petinnella)

Michael Dease didn’t take up trombone until age 17. Nine months after switching from saxophone, the Augusta, Ga., native entered Juilliard’s inaugural 2001 jazz class, on his way to becoming one of jazz’s most impressive young soloists on any instrument. He spent the next 12 years in New York, teaching at Queens College and the New School, thriving as a leader and getting snapped up by the big bands of Illinois Jacquet, Roy Hargrove, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, David Weiss, Charles Tolliver, and more. In 2012 he took a professorship at Michigan State University in East Lansing, where he now lives with his wife, percussion professor Gwendolyn Dease, and their two young daughters. In the middle of a family jaunt through the South, the trombonist was able to break away and visit our correspondent in nearby Athens, Ga. Deep listening, discussion, and burrito-eating ensued.

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five

“Sweet Little Papa” (The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings, Sony). Armstrong, cornet; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo. Recorded in 1926.

BEFORE: [After Armstrong’s trumpet break] Mmm. Whoo, my Lord! [Laughs]

[After track ends] That’s where it all started. That’s where it comes from too. It’s Pops. Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five. That’s the meat and potatoes, that’s the entrée and the side dishes all right there. Kid Ory on trombone. That’s really the genesis not only of my instrument, the trombone, but where the melody and rhythm peaked, and we’ve been trying to ride along that peak throughout the rest of the history of jazz.

Advertisement

That wasn’t where I entered jazz from, I entered through bebop. But I realized there was more to it than a single pane of glass. So I had to go back and do research in order to truly understand where my entry point was and what it meant. Kid Ory was a big part of figuring it out as a trombonist: his sound and rhythm, the emotional content that he played with. It was always a story and a message in his soloing and his accompaniment too. I didn’t realize until later that the trombone is one of the fundamental jazz instruments. Before saxophone it was clarinet, and before trumpet the cornet. The trombone has really been there since day one.

Ory didn’t get the due he deserved—he was in some ways overshadowed by the virtuosity of his counterparts, Miff Mole and Jack Teagarden and all those cats. In terms of what he means to me as a contemporary trombonist: It’s not that any of us are imitating him, it’s that he figured something out for us that we don’t have to figure out anymore. He figured out that you have to project and support the sound, that you have to listen to the melody, that you have to not play bullshit for technique’s sake. He probably tripped over that in his own way, then polished it by the time the Hot Five went into the studio to record. So we can carry that connected, vocal, rhythmically forward and punchy, no-holds-barred approach into our own music.

2. Slide Hampton Octet

“On the Street Where You Live” (Somethin’ Sanctified, Atlantic). Hampton, trombone, arranger; Hobart Dotson, Richard Williams, trumpets; Charles Greenlee, trombone; Jay Cameron, baritone sax; George Coleman, tenor sax; Larry Ridley, bass; Pete La Roca, drums. Recorded in 1960.

BEFORE: My goodness! [Snapping] It’s been a long time since I heard this one. I think I know who it is, I just want to listen. This is so good.

Oh my goodness, the arranging. There’s only one person that arranged like this. Slide Hampton. My hero. These harmonic progressions and the backgrounds, making the octet sound like a big band—actually the voicings were larger than a lot of big bands. A lot of my own writing comes from studying his scores, but this is definitely a wider harmonic palette than the simple things I’ve arranged for big band. The way that he’s able to space intervals and his understanding of timbre is just on a level that has not been deciphered yet. Because we don’t have anyone imitating it well enough. It’s unreal.

I hesitated for a second because Slide has such a strong vein of J.J. Johnson in his playing, and right away I had to listen past a couple of notes. It could’ve been J.J. on a big horn. Slide is also one of the people to expand the range of the horn, so he’s popping out high Fs like they’re breakfast cereal. J.J. could do that too, though he elected not to. This to me is Slide in his element, casting spells and incantations with these chords and backgrounds and development. He’s avoiding the repetition of standard arranging, so we’re getting a through-composed concept. This is music that challenges and stimulates musicians but is very interactive with audiences.

Slide moved to Europe in the ’60s and that may have contributed to his being more in the periphery than the forefront. But he came back, moved to New Jersey, and became a huge mentor to many generations of trombonists. When I made my second album Clarity in 2006, [trombonist] David Gibson told me I should send it to Slide. I was reluctant but I took his advice and did it, wrote a two-page handwritten letter with teardrops on it [laughs], and Slide called me the next day. He said [deadpanning], “Michael, your record sounds incredible, are you free to rehearse next week for the Vanguard?” Uhhh, yes. So I played the Vanguard with Slide’s Trombone All-Stars and everybody came out: Roy Hargrove, Charles Tolliver, John Lee, Winard Harper, Nicholas Payton. And everybody who came out hired me for their bands. So that week was life-changing in a number of ways. I can’t thank Slide enough.

3. Samuel Blaser

“Tom Sherman’s Barroom” (Early in the Mornin’, Outnote). Blaser, trombone; Russ Lossing, piano and keyboards; Masa Kamaguchi, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums. Recorded in 2017.

BEFORE: I like the dark sound and the atmosphere this is setting. It’s a playful and plodding time feel. The organ’s an interesting touch, adds an unexpected sheen and sustain to the sound. I don’t know who this is. [Listens more] I can tell you some names. [Listens more] They’re getting around the trombone really well. Sounds like a bigger horn. I could guess Michael Dessen or Alan Ferber. When I heard the darker sound I thought of Andy Hunter, but it doesn’t remind me of his playing. That’s a good one, you got me.

AFTER: I know Samuel. I remember when he lived in New York. I was hearing the bigger horn, the dark sound, which is favored by a lot of contemporary players. I used to play larger horns myself, mainly from a J.J. and Slide influence. But you see that in their musical disciples too, with Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks. There’s a whole spectrum that players are exploring more than ever: the darker, deeper, woofier, French-hornier side of things. I haven’t heard Samuel play in a long time, so it’s nice to hear that. I love how he’s getting around the horn. He’s all over it, upstairs, downstairs, does it smoothly.

If you’re looking at this as a mood piece or a statement that’s intended to stand on its own, it works. If I’m listening to it as a vehicle for enjoyment, then my aesthetics take the steering wheel. My first enjoyment response to this is a little disconnected. It’s not grabbing me emotionally, and some of that I think comes from the drone, the repetitive melody. I kind of feel like the rest of the band could do more to shape that, not leave it quite so much up to Samuel to do that.

4. Jennifer Wharton

“The Year of Two Summers” (Bonegasm, Sunnyside). Wharton, bass trombone; John Fedchock, Nate Mayland, Alan Ferber, trombones; Michael Eckroth, piano; Evan Gregor, bass; Don Peretz, drums; Mauricio Herrera, percussion. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: That’s cool. Trombone ensemble. I thought I heard some Ryan Keberle eighth notes in there [sings]. [Listens more] Wow. It’s a nice tune, I really dig it. Little seven vibe in the middle there. Wow, voices, cool. That’s a fat bass trombone sound. I really like that song. You got me, I don’t know who it is.

It’s Jennifer Wharton, she calls the group …

[Interrupting] Bonegasm! So John Fedchock is on this. Who wrote that tune?

Edward Perez, the bassist.

Ah! Great. Jen just came by my school to do a master class and we did John’s chart on “Tricotism” from this album. Jen and I were in New York together, played in some big bands around. It could be that I’m sitting next to one speaker, but the bass bone was crankin’. She’s a great player and I love that she’s outspoken about her life as a musician, and cares about making young musicians and women feel more empowered, moving the needle on respect. She’s been doing a great job not only as an advocate but as a doer. It’s her first record and it’s a testament to the amount of respect she has in the jazz community that cats came together and hooked up these charts and the band sounds so cooking.

5. Ryan Porter

“Madiba” (Force for Good, World Galaxy). Porter, trombone; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Cameron Graves, Brandon Coleman, keyboards; Miles Mosley, bass; Tony Austin, drums. Released in 2019.

BEFORE: I like the flexatone, that’s cool. [Listens at length to trombone solo] I don’t know this either. Fiery. I like the purposeful energy but recklessness that they’re all going at it with, I dig that. Yeah. A couple of quasi-educated guesses would be Papo Vazquez or Luis Bonilla. Stafford Hunter? Any hints? [Listens to tenor solo] This is maybe older than I thought it was. [Listens to Rhodes solo] Wow. No, you got me, man.

AFTER: Okay! He plays with Kamasi. I’ve got one of his albums, it’s got a yellow cover. [The Optimist – Ed.] I’m not familiar with him as much I’d like to be. I first heard him on The Epic and I was like, yeah, trombone in the mix, do it! I checked him out from there and got his record.

I feel like the trombone is always dealing with the catchup and the slowdown from the swing-to-bebop days. It vacillates every 10 years or so: First it’s Let’s clean up the trombone, and then it’s like, That’s too much, let’s keep it real, don’t dis the instrument. Then the music takes another detour and it becomes, Oh, we’ve got to do more intervals, more pitch, use pedals—trombone’s relevant, y’all. Now we’re getting to a time where the music is driving what the trombone does rather than the other way around. When I was coming up with my peers Marshall Gilkes and Ryan Keberle and Elliot Mason, we were trying to clean up attacks and partials and speed and things like that. Thank goodness, we’re starting to let some of that go, and let the music drag us where we need to go, rather than us pushing the sound a certain way.

Your first reaction to this was “fiery,” and you mentioned its “recklessness.” Is that what you were getting at?

Yeah. Because it sounds like a live record, where you follow an idea and it takes you to a place where your accuracy isn’t as strong, say the upper register, or the articulation isn’t as clean. I hear some of that with this track, but Ryan’s not letting that deter him from making a statement. It sounds great. This isn’t a dis, it’s an observation that the upside of sloppy is raw, and the downside of raw is sloppy [laughs]. And I’m saying, for what it meant to me, the impact was greater because the music was taking them places and they were undeterred. I’m looking forward to checking it out more.

6. Duke Ellington

“Blue Cellophane” (The Carnegie Hall Concerts: December 1944, Prestige). Lawrence Brown, trombone feature; Shelton Hemphill, Rex Stewart, Taft Jordan, Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, trumpets; Joe Nanton, Claude Jones, trombones; Jimmy Hamilton, Otto Hardwick, Johnny Hodges, Al Sears, Harry Carney, reeds; Ellington, piano; Fred Guy, guitar; Junior Raglin, bass; Hillard Brown, drums. Recorded in 1944.

BEFORE: [Immediately] “Blue Cellophane.” Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. A class act if there ever was one. Longtime lead trombonist. I’ve listened to this enough for both of us. Now I’m like an old fogey, knowing all the old cats.

When I started, I wanted to be the next Curtis Fuller. So checking out Lawrence Brown was very high on my priority list. I thought, “Duke Ellington heard this cat and said, ‘I need him for the rest of my life,’ so I can learn something from Lawrence Brown.” And the things that you learn are impeccable pitch, time, clarity on a level like Urbie Green. Again, playing what he hears and never sacrificing the sound or the moment for any sense of ego. I would say that he should’ve written a book on how to be somebody’s trombonist, if the thousand records and gigs weren’t the book already. I’m a huge fan. That piece is great for working on technique: it takes you from the top of the horn to the bottom, and you get the prim and polished side but also the raw and soulful side over the C-minor part.

7. Joe Fiedler

“I’m In” (I’m In, Multiphonics). Fiedler, trombone; Rob Jost, bass; Michael Sarin, drums. Released in 2015.

BEFORE: [Listens to solo trombone intro] Wow, reminds me of George Lewis. [Listens more] It’s not Ray Anderson? Oh, you know who this reminds me of? A cat who’s influenced a lot by those guys, Joe Fiedler.

Bingo.

What gave it away was the combination of all the things: the incredible range—Joe is known for having a great solid upstairs—then the multiphonics, the control, extremes of dynamics and expression. When you add all those together, you get Joe Fiedler. And then the simpatico with the trio, which has been his format for a long time.

I’m sure Joe would count Ray, George, Curtis Fowlkes, Albert Mangelsdorff as influences. Something I love about him that I was kind of missing from the Samuel Blaser track is the dynamic spectrum, the overhead—the low lows, the high highs, and all the frequencies in between. That’s one of Joe’s strong points.

8. Wynton Marsalis Septet

“In the Court of King Oliver” (Live at the Village Vanguard, Columbia). Marsalis, trumpet; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, reeds; Ben Wolfe, bass; Eric Reed, piano; Herlin Riley, drums. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: [Immediately] This is my heart! Wycliffe Gordon with Wynton Marsalis, “In the Court of King Oliver.” This is some of the finest mute playing, by both Wynton and Wycliffe, in the history of jazz. [Hears Gordon’s muted entrance] C’mon. That’s my teacher. He’s why I’m sitting here today. If anybody wants to understand whether the conversation is real or figurative in jazz music, the dialogue, play them that. It’s both. It doesn’t get any clearer than that.

I was a teenager when this was recorded, and Wycliffe, being from Augusta, was the hometown hero for aspiring musicians. So that record was like sitting on the front porch all day waiting for the newspaper to be thrown and seeing [the headline] “Hometown Kid Makes Good.” I think Wycliffe represents that for everybody from Augusta and most people from the South that have big scary dreams as kids.

We heard Lawrence Brown earlier, but would you say that Wycliffe is coming more from the Tricky Sam Nanton side of Ellington’s trombones?

Exactly. Tricky Sam was where that all began. He used a trumpet mute called a nonpareil, adjusted to fit the trombone. But we still don’t know what he was doing in his mouth, with his tongue and his airflow, to get that yearning and expressive mewling. But Wycliffe has taken that to the next level. To put him in the Tricky Sam category is actually a disservice to the innovation that he’s brought to the plunger sound. It’s a compliment for sure, but Wycliffe has done way more than just replicate that. In the same way that Al Grey staked his own claim to playing plunger.

9. Conrad Herwig

“Wingspan” (Reflections, Criss Cross). Herwig, trombone; Igor Butman, tenor saxophone; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; David Kikoski, piano; Kenny Davis, bass; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: [Listens to a few bars of the trombone solo] Conrad. Yeah, the way he points in the upper register—he’s found a way to thread his ideas through the trombone that give it a very distinctive tinge. Such as those triplets through the pentatonics, mastering the overtone series and the partials of the instrument, very identifiable. Living in the middle to upper register, which is its own sound. He along with Frank Rosolino, Bill Watrous, pioneered that sound. [Still listening] As you hear in that giant high F [laughs].

Conrad played on three cuts of my album Bonafide [Posi-Tone, 2018]. When I switched to trombone I had some people discouraging me, and I wrote to Conrad out of the blue, as an 18-year-old. I told him my story and asked him what I should do. He wrote me back, “Stick with it, kid, and look me up in New York.” I was really honored to have him play on Bonafide. He’s another cat who found inspiration within and also outside of the trombone lineage.

David R. Adler

David R. Adler writes about jazz and assorted topics. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, NPR Music, WBGO.org, The Philadelphia InquirerThe Village Voice, DownBeat, Time Out New York, and many other publications. From 2010-2017 he taught jazz history at the Aaron Copland School of Music (Queens College-CUNY). In summer 2017, after 30 years in New York (apart from two in Philadelphia), David relocated with his family to Athens, Georgia. There he continues to write about music and perform solo as a guitarist/vocalist.