The name “Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut” is both joke and genius. The “butt” of the humor should be obvious to anyone over age seven, while the musicological reference—the sackbut was a 15th-century predecessor of the trombone, and commonly organized into choirs for church and ceremonial music—perfectly suits Fiedler’s concept. With his own trombone augmented by those of Ryan Keberle and Luis Bonilla, plus Jon Sass on tuba, Fiedler’s Big Sackbut is a canny jazz update of a Renaissance brass choir, and a damn fine example of what a handful of trombones can do.
Live in Graz is an astonishing display of ensemble performance, with arrangements so well-crafted that you’ll swear they snuck an extra player or two onstage. There’s a lovely sense of big-band swing to Fiedler’s setting of Charles Mingus’ “Devil Woman,” and the controlled chaos that tugs at the corners of “Su Blah Blah Buh Sibi” wonderfully evokes the spirit of its composer, the late great Roswell Rudd.
But it’s the individual playing that seals the deal. Each of the three trombonists boasts impressive range combined with jaw-dropping speed and agility, but there’s no showboating here; their virtuosity is offered in service to musical ideas, not ego. Bonilla’s lengthy solo on “I’m In” is a perfect example, using the full range of the instrument but so tightly constructed and thematically coherent you almost don’t notice how many octaves he covers. Or take Keberle’s shape-shifting introduction to “Devil Woman,” which uses mutes and multiphonics (singing one note while playing another) to transform his tone more effectively than electronics ever could. Perhaps the album’s sweetest performance is the rendition of Rudd’s “Yankee No-How,” in which all three trombonists invoke the intersection of gut-bucket blues and avant-garde audacity that defined Rudd’s career.