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John Fedchock: Before & After

The veteran trombonist weighs in on past and present masters

John Fedchock  
John Fedchock (photo: Chris Drukker)

Trombonist John Fedchock, 63, carries the broad sweep of history in his head and his horn.  Over the course of more than four decades he’s crossed paths or shared stages with nearly every living notable wielding a slide, garnered two Grammy nominations for his work as an arranger, put his stamp on everything from the quartet format to the big band, and willingly shared his extensive knowledge in universities across the globe.  
            Initially gaining notice in the ’80s during a seven-year stint with Woody Herman in the Young Thundering Herd, Fedchock went on to draw high praise for his work in other top-flight large ensembles, including the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, Louie Bellson Big Band, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, and his own New York Big Band. The mantle of leadership and a multitude of engagements on the educational front have occupied a significant amount of his time in recent years, yet he’s managed to stay fully abreast of developments in the trombone world and the players pushing the instrument forward. Never one to simply look back, Fedchock observes, absorbs, and personalizes what he encounters at every angle and from every time period, a fact made evident in his playing and writing on a recent string of leader dates for the Summit imprint. 
            Riding high with the July release of a sextet session, Into the Shadows, and fresh off an online teaching gig in tandem with his wife, bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton, for the Vermont Jazz Center in August, Fedchock (and Wharton) traveled out to this writer’s home in Northport, New York, for an outdoor, socially distanced listening session. Everything from craft beer to the current climate of the music business entered into the discussion over the course of several hours of wonderfully roaming conversation, but it was all business and focused feedback when the music was rolling. This was Fedchock’s first Before & After experience. 

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

1. Carl Fontana
“It Might as Well Be Spring” (The Great Fontana, Uptown). Fontana, trombone; Richard Wyands, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Akira Tana, drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: [Within three seconds of the trombone entrance] Obviously it’s Carl Fontana. One of my favorites of all time. 

What gave it away so quickly?

His sound and his articulation. And just his delivery—his phrasing is so unique and relaxed. I think this is his first album as a leader. Al Cohn plays beautifully on this album too, but he’s not on this tune. 

Carl went for most of his career not having an album under his own name, so when I first discovered his playing, which was when I was in college [at The Ohio State University], I’d hunt for anything that he’d played on. One really significant recording I got was an album he played on called Supersax Plays Bird, Vol. 2: Salt Peanuts. He only played on four tracks, but it was some really great playing on classic tunes, and it had a big impact on me. That would have been somewhere in the mid-to-late ’70s.   

You co-led an album with Carl.
I did. He did a series of recordings in the late ’90s/early ’00s live in a club in Las Vegas with various people. Prior to that—in the mid-’90s—we had become friends. I had met him earlier, when I was on the road with Woody Herman, and we had some nice conversations. But in the ’90s he came to New York to play with Frank Sinatra Jr., and a bunch of trombone players got together to have dinner then. I was sitting next to him, talking. That particular year, there was going to be a trombone conference in Vegas. I said, “I’d like to go,” and he said, “Why don’t you come? You can stay at my house.” So I did, and we ended up having a great friendship right up until the end. The album we recorded—Live at Capozzoli’s—was done in 2000. And he passed in 2003. 

I’d occasionally make a trip out there to visit with him. Great guy, very relaxed guy. You can tell from his music. He was just like what you hear, exactly. [At the track’s trombone break] Carl’s time is just impeccable. Unbelievable. You play something like this for a young student just to demonstrate great time. And not only great time, but also great melodies. He’s expertly outlining the chord changes, but still creating strong melodies. That’s not easy to do. He has a lot of technique but it’s not like he’s flaunting it. It’s part of the fabric. 

2. Michael Dease
“I’m Glad There Is You” (Relentless, Posi-Tone). Dease, trombone; Todd Bashore, Tim Green, Diego Rivera, Sharel Cassity, Tony Lustig, reeds; Seneca Black, Greg Gisbert, Alphonso Horne, Etienne Charles, Alex Norris, Benny Benack III, Anthony Stanco, trumpets; Tom “Bones” Malone, Jerrick Matthews, Coleman Hughes, trombones; Jeff Nelson, Ron Wilkins, bass trombones; Miki Hayama, piano; Linda May Han Oh, bass; Ulysses Owens Jr., drums; Gwendolyn Burgett, percussion. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Well, from the delivery and the filigree and all of that, I would have to guess it’s Mike Dease.

AFTER: He’s a beautiful player. Mike is one of the great young trombonists on the scene now, and he’s become very influential. I do a lot of clinics at schools, and I find a lot of young people are trying to emulate his playing. And that’s really what the definition of being influential is, right? In listening to that, everything is very organized. The lines he plays are all driven by history—and not just trombone history, which is a nice thing. Sometimes young trombonists can get hung up just checking out trombone players, and they don’t realize there’s so much more that can push the envelope on the instrument coming from other instruments. If you just stay in your own comfort zone, the instrument’s not going to grow as an improvising entity. So I really appreciate that with Mike. 

When this first started I was unsure if it was him, since there are several imitators out there now. Within four or five notes I thought, “Maybe that’s Mike, but let’s listen further.”  But what he does here was so cleanly and effortlessly executed, there was no doubt it was him.

3. Steve Davis
“Yardbird Suite” (Eloquence, Jazz Legacy). Davis, trombone; Hank Jones, piano; Nat Reeves, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums. Recorded in 2007.

BEFORE: [After a minute] I’d be really surprised if it wasn’t Steve Davis. [I could tell] within three or four consecutive eighth notes. His time feel, and the way he plays those eighth notes, is really identifiable. The thing I love about Steve’s playing is it’s all about the line. He’s got plenty of technique but he only uses what’s necessary to execute the idea he’s thinking about. He delineates the chord changes well and, obviously, has history in his playing—he’s a big disciple of Curtis Fuller. But he’s developed his own thing, which is also very imitated these days because it’s so strong. [Listens to the traded solos] That’s definitely some Curtis in there.

The other thing I like about Steve’s playing is that he’s not afraid to play in the meaty part of the instrument—toward the bottom of the staff. Some people avoid that because they don’t feel it’s impressive, but he’s got a beautiful sound down there, so why not take advantage of that?

4. Woody Herman
“The Meaning of the Blues” (Giant Steps, Fantasy). Herman, reeds; Greg Herbert, Frank Tiberi, Steve Lederer, Harry Kleintank, reeds; Larry Pyatt, Gil Rathel, Walt Blanton, Bill Byrne, trumpets; Bill Stapleton, trumpet and flugelhorn; Jim Pugh, Geoff Sharp, trombones; Harold Garrett, bass trombone; Andy Laverne, electric piano; Joe Beck, guitar; Wayne Darling, bass; Ed Soph, drums; Ray Barretto, congas. Recorded in 1973.

BEFORE: [Listens to the introduction before the soloist enters] This is Jim Pugh playing. I didn’t even have to hear him. “The Meaning of the Blues.” This is one of the first albums I ever got of Woody Herman’s band. Jim plays beautifully on this. The first time I heard Woody’s band I was 16 years old, in high school, and they came to my school and did a clinic and a concert.  Jim was playing in the band. Woody loved him, so he was up there playing solos all night, and I was in the front row going, “Okay. Wow. This is something I want to do.” I didn’t have this album at the time, but this was a Grammy-winning album—Giant Steps. And the following year they recorded an album called Thundering Herd, which also won a Grammy. Jim played “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” on that one, and he played it that evening. That was one of the most inspirational days of my life.

I followed Jim teaching at a couple of schools. He was at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and I followed him there. And then when he was teaching at Purchase College and left for Illinois, I took over his position there. He’s been a big influence in my life and as a musician. And he went to Eastman. When I heard Woody’s band, and the whole trombone section was from Eastman, I said, “I’ve got to go to Eastman.” But I couldn’t get in as an undergrad because I was woefully unprepared. But my whole goal through my undergrad was to get good enough to get into Eastman’s graduate program, which I did. And that gave me whatever everybody else was drinking—the Kool-Aid, so to speak—that helped get me into Woody’s band. I still have the poster from that concert from high school. [Listens to the ending] That’s some really beautiful playing.

“The first time I heard Woody [Herman]’s band I was 16, and they came to my school and did a clinic and a concert. That was one of the most inspirational days of my life.”

5. J.J. Johnson
“El Camino Real” (J.J.!, RCA Victor). Johnson, trombone; Jerry Dodgion, Harvey Estrin, Oliver Nelson, Budd Johnson, reeds; Jimmy Maxwell, Joe Wilder, trumpets; Thad Jones, Ernie Royal, trumpets and flugelhorns; Jimmy Buffington, French horn; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Tony Studd, Tom Mitchell, bass trombones; Bill Stanley, tuba; Hank Jones, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Grady Tate, drums. Recorded in 1964.

BEFORE: [Listens for 25 seconds] It’s J.J. Is this that brass album? Oh, no? What year is this?

1964. What was the giveaway for J.J.?

His sound, his attack, his inflection. A lot of people try to copy that, but it doesn’t have the same sound because it’s a combination of those three things. Sound, articulation, inflection.  And there’s a warmth in his vibrato that’s unique. 

Obviously J.J. is one of the iconic jazz trombonists and the originator of the modern jazz trombone sound. But his writing was special as well. That’s underappreciated. His writing was much like his playing—very economical, very motivic. There was never anything there that didn’t belong there. Perfection.

When I first heard that opening I thought it was from The Brass Orchestra. Do you have that album from the ’90s that he did in New York? They did it in Clinton Recording Studio. It was a larger, enhanced group. Maybe this tune is actually on that. [“El Camino Real” is the leadoff track on that album.]   

The interesting thing about J.J. is that he plays like a writer and he writes like a player. Everything he plays is so compositional and everything he writes is so comfortable to play. And I think a lot of young writers haven’t learned that lesson. They’re trying to push the envelope, and I understand that, but sometimes they’ll write things that are literally unplayable to get a fresh take on something.

It’s the more-is-more mindset.

Yeah. And now we’re also in an era where the writers aren’t necessarily players in every case. Jazz composition is something you can major in in college. It used to be that the major writers—Duke, Thad, whoever you’re talking about—were all players within the band. So they knew the propensity of the other players, what they were able to do, what they weren’t able to do, what was pushing it a little bit, and what was pushing it too much. Now those lines aren’t even blurred anymore. They’re just completely gone. And you have to kind of deal with it. Many times you have to deal with it in the studio, bit by bit, to get something right. But then to perform it live is another story. It’s not going to sound like the album.      

6. Quincy Jones and His Orchestra
“Solitude” (Live in Ludwigshafen 1961, SWR Jazzhaus). Jones, conductor; Phil Woods, Joe Lopes, Eric Dixon, Budd Johnson, Sahib Shihab, reeds; Benny Bailey, Freddie Hubbard, Rolf Ericson, Paul Cohen, trumpets; Julius Watkins, French horn; Curtis Fuller, Melba Liston, Åke Persson, David Baker, trombones; Patti Bown, piano; Les Spann, guitar and flute; Buddy Catlett, bass; Stu Martin, drums; Carlos “Patato” Valdes, congas. Recorded in 1961.

BEFORE: My first thought, obviously, is that it’s “Solitude.” But it’s not one of Duke’s trombonists and it doesn’t sound like Duke’s band. And maybe it’s not even Duke’s arrangement. But I’m going to guess from the little bit of information in the playing, even though she didn’t improvise much on it, that it’s Melba Liston. Is that right?

Yep! Her arrangement too.

AFTER: She’s underappreciated. Really beautiful sound, lyrical playing. When it first started you heard some subtle bebop undertones—it wasn’t bebop, but it just has some familiar undertones there. This was a nice way to play a melody, which is really underappreciated these days because many of the new melodies are technically difficult to perform. Now you have to think more about execution than expression sometimes. Her expression was really, really exceptional. She was a trailblazer. There weren’t a lot of women doing what she was doing at that time. I mean, there were all-female bands, but someone like this who rose through the ranks to become a prominent soloist wasn’t really heard of in those days.   

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.