In the mid-1980s, Joe Fiedler was a jazz student at the University of Pittsburgh, studying the trombone bible according to J.J. Johnson under the tutelage of hard-bop legend Nathan Davis. A math nerd, Fiedler enjoyed the puzzle of chord substitutions, but he felt he was missing something. Then, late one night, as he was driving home from a date, he heard a recording on Public Radio International’s Jazz After Hours that changed his life.
“It was the greatest thing,” Fiedler remembers. “The trombone was growling, smearing against the grain and using a lot of vibrato. It had humor and drama. I told myself, ‘That’s how I want to play, and that’s the road I want to go down.’ I’d been so into bebop, but this put me on a new path. I pulled the car over to the shoulder so I’d be sure to hear [deejay] Jim Wilke name all the players. The trombonist was Ray Anderson.”
At a pizza joint in downtown Baltimore, Fiedler, now 52, grins at the memory. A tall man with gray sideburns, wearing glasses, jeans and a blue-and-white print shirt, he exudes the modesty of an underdog. Despite a deep catalog of impressive recordings and collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Andrew Hill, Anthony Braxton, Maria Schneider, the Mingus Big Band and Eddie Palmieri, he has never won much renown outside the world of avant-garde jazz.
The circuitous path he has followed since pulling over to the shoulder of a Pennsylvania highway more than 30 years ago has led to Like, Strange (Multiphonics), which expands his longtime trio into a quintet and places a new emphasis on tunes. He still employs the growls and smears of avant-garde trombone, but he marries those techniques to an increased emphasis on melody and form. “With this record, after so many years with the trio, I wanted to try my thing in a more conventional format without sacrificing any bit of my personal style,” he explains. “I found it is more dangerous and challenging to play over standard changes and to limit a solo to two choruses, because the room for error is much less. Now I have to make conscious decisions about when I’m going to play inside the changes and when I’m going to play outside.”
Later that evening, Fiedler leads the quintet from the recording through a tour date at Baltimore’s armchair-filled jazz venue, An Die Musik Live! On “Maple Avenue Tango,” off the new album, Michael Sarin’s drum mallets and Pete McCann’s shivering, film-noir guitar set up the jaunty melody, introduced by Fiedler and saxophonist Jeff Lederer.
After McCann plays a slo-mo guitar solo over bassist Rob Jost’s tango syncopation, Lederer and Fiedler engage in a call-and-response duet, trading eights that stay close to the theme. By the time they’re trading fours, however, they’ve digressed into free improvisation that only obliquely echoes the tune. Soon they are soloing simultaneously.
That collective improvisation recalls not only Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics but also early New Orleans jazz. More specifically, the interaction between Fiedler and Lederer evokes the exchanges between trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist Steve Lacy, two avant-gardists who got their start playing trad-jazz. The trombone, of course, was a key instrument in early jazz, as was the tuba, which Fiedler employs in another of his ensembles, Big Sackbut. “I don’t listen to a lot of Dixieland,” he admits, “but I recognize that it’s at the root of my music. It all starts with Roswell and Steve, but Ray Anderson took it a step further by playing tunes and solos. Most of the people who have a free vocabulary don’t have command of harmony—and vice versa. The ideal is to have both. You could hear that with Mingus. He could have Clifford Jordan play a solo and then have Eric Dolphy play a solo—and have it work.”
At An Die Musik, tunes such as “Tuna Fish Cans,” “Guiro Nuevo” and “Quasi…” are built atop Latin rhythms, even if the themes and solos sound little like those of a Latin dance band. Nonetheless, those pulsing patterns open yet another door for audiences to approach the challenging sound of avant-garde jazz. Fiedler’s Afro-Cuban influence resulted not so much from an aesthetic choice as from the exigencies of making a living as a trombonist in New York. He had had some experience playing salsa in Pittsburgh, and when he moved to New York in 1993, he found that Latin gigs paid a lot better than free-improv ones.
“I was pretty good at it,” Fiedler says, “and I ascended from the neighborhood bands to play with Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri. People teased me that I must have been Puerto Rican in a past life. I could play high and I could play all night, so I played 300 to 400 gigs a year for a long time. I turn a lot of work down now, but I’m still with Eddie. He’s the one who first added the trombone, because he wanted something different from all the other salsa bands. His trombonist Barry Rogers set the standard in the ’60s. Even today, if you play a good solo, people will nod and say, ‘Barry Rogers.’”
“Joe and I have worked parallel paths on the New York freelance scene,” Lederer adds. “We ended up on a lot of free-improv and salsa gigs. A directness of communication and an aggressiveness of attack are encouraged by both genres. The phrasing of eighth notes that makes salsa swing ties into some of the more ‘out’ things we also love. We’d see each other at a salsa show and then see each other at a free-improv jam session at the Knitting Factory. It’s not that we’re musical polyglots; it’s that we share this very specific combination of interest.”
Fiedler initially took up the trombone because all the trumpets were spoken for in his fourth-grade band in Pittsburgh, but he grew to love the instrument. “I find it to be the most expressive of all instruments,” he says now. “With the slide and all the mutes, it feels more like the human voice; I don’t think the saxophone or trumpet can touch it. With all its humor and burlesque, I can’t think of a better way to express myself.”
You can hear that sense of humor on the title track from the new album. In Baltimore, over McCann’s wah-wah-infused R&B vamp, Fiedler’s trombone seems to be talking in the hipster slang suggested by the phrase “Like, Strange.” Remarkably, even as Fiedler seems to be mocking bohemian affectations, he radiates an affection for the scene. When he plays “I’m In,” the title tune from his 2015 trio album, Fiedler uses a toilet plunger to simulate growls of pleasure and squeals of laughter. “Jazz has gotten way too serious,” Fiedler argues. “If you look back to Bill Harris and J.J. Johnson in the late ’40s, you see a splitting of the seas. Bill kept to telling a story and being funny, while J.J. went in the bebop direction. To do that, however, he had to lose a lot of the trombone’s identity so it sounded more like the other bebop instruments. The trombone’s ability to joke and talk got lost till Roswell and Ray came along.”
With his job writing and arranging the incidental music and underscoring for Sesame Street, Fiedler enjoys more economic security these days. That work and the Palmieri gig enable him to spend more time composing for his quintet, his trio and Big Sackbut. In addition, the Jeff Lederer-Joe Fiedler Quintet (with bassist Nick Dunston, drummer George Schuller and vocalist Mary LaRose) will be touring New England and Portugal this fall. In all of these projects, Fiedler is searching for new ways to combine tradition and innovation.
“The danger of extended technique on the trombone is a loss of accuracy,” he says. “If you play a wrong note in a bebop setting, it really stands out. The trombone is risky; it requires a lot of courage. You have to be willing to go for it. But if you have enough technique to start a tune with a conventional approach and then explode into something different, the audience will respond. They want to hear you go to the edge, even if you fall off sometimes. That’s the difference between greatness and OK-ness.”
I’m In (Multiphonics, 2015)
Sackbut Stomp (Multiphonics, 2012)
Sacred Chrome Orb (Multiphonics, 2011)