April 21, 2010

Back on April 1, I wrote a post on Turk Murphy’s famous showpiece The Trombone Rag. This got me to thinking about other famous jazz works for trombone  and so I thought I would write a series based on some of these famous showpieces. This week’s entry deals with one of the most demanding of them, Tommy Dorsey‘s Trombonology.

Tommy Dorsey is widely considered one of the greatest jazz trombonists of all time. Though he has been overshadowed by later artists such as J.J. Johnson, Dorsey remains the premier Swing Era trombonist. His jazz skills were perhaps not as sharp as those of Jack Teagarden but his technique and his range were unsurpassed. His phrasing in particular has been often-imitated, most famously by Frank Sinatra who admitted that Dorsey taught him to sing.

In 1947, Dorsey had just re-constituted his orchestra and Trombonology was written at this time. It premiered on the 1947 78-RPM record Vic 20-2419, as reported in the liner notes of the album Tommy Dorsey: The Post-War Era. Unlike the back-story to Turk Murphy’s Trombone Rag, there is very little information available about why Tommy wrote the piece leaving me to suspect that he simply wanted a challenge. Dorsey was a notorious perfectionist and the piece was admirably suited to show off both his amazing breath control and his astonishing range – the piece ends on a high F two octaves above the staff and is held for a full four measures.

Trombonology contains absolutely no improvisation at all – it is entirely written out. This is not surprising as Dorsey reportedly preferred to do written solos as opposed to improvisational solos, although he could and did improvise with great skill.  However, as  a demonstration of technique the piece is difficult to surpass. Trombonology is usually taken at a fairly fast pace, requiring the soloist to have a complete mastery of the instrument in order to successfully negotiate the many interval jumps. In addition, the piece is mostly legato, requiring an extraordinarily smooth slide technique. Needless to say, it is not a piece for beginners.

A recording of Dorsey performing his piece can be found on YouTube:

An arrangement for trombone and piano can be found at: under the Trombone Solos tab.

Hat tip for the link to to the Classic Brass blog.


The Trombone Rag

April 1, 2010

Turk Murphy’s 1945 composition Trombone Rag ranks as one of the most demanding pieces for the trombone in the entire repertoire of traditional jazz. And according to Richard E. Hall in a 2006 article at Jazzology, there is good reason for the piece’s famous level of difficulty. Hall claims it was not composed in a void, but rather for a specific purpose. Writes Hall,

There was another trombonist in San Francisco who kept imitating Turk’s style and improvisations. So Turk, quite angered, decided to compose a difficult tune that this ”second rater” would be unable to play. So he wrote the music of “Trombone Rag” (in 1945, while still with the Watters band). But when it came to playing it himself, he had his problems. It was only after considerable practice that Turk mastered his own composition. However, these difficulties ensured that his imitator would probably be stumped, and he was.

Turk was well-known as a perfectionist and as one who hated inferior imitators. He made certain to put this one in his place when he came up with the Trombone Rag. As I can well attest, this piece is indeed one of the most technically demanding in the traditional repertoire. There are other trombone showcases, such as Edward ‘Kid’ Ory‘s famous Ory’s Creole Trombone, or the classic Lassus Trombone (1915), which was one of many trombone rags written by the prolific Henry Fillmore. However, Murphy’s Trombone Rag is still considered the true test of a trombonist.

The piece begins with a relatively simple introduction, but quickly leads into phrases that require both a fluid slide technique and a thorough command of the embouchure. One must maintain extreme concentration on these phrases – it is easy to slip when negotiating these. This is followed by a short breather while the piano takes the sole improvisational chorus in the entire piece. However, the respite is short – the trombone is required to reprise the demanding lead again and remains in the forefront until the piece ends.

The Trombone Rag is an interesting piece in that it contains very little improvisation – the parts are written ad save for the short piano chorus, there is little or no room for improvisation in the entire piece. That being said however, no two trombonists play it exactly the same way. Nor is this unusual. Jazz bands by definition include a great deal of creativity in the way they approach the standards. In addition, the piece is demanding enough that it is often played so as to minimize the most difficult passages – especially in live performances. Below are links to three very different performances of the Trombone Rag:

1. The High Sierra Jazz Band at Monterey, CA in 2010, featuring Howard Miyata.

2. The Last Chance Jazz Band at Prosser, WA in 2007. The featured performer is reportedly a trombonist named Don Stone.

3. The Watergate Seven Plus One Jazz Band from France in 1997 featuring leader Daniel Barda.

Note how each performer plays the tune slightly differently. There are no video clips I could find of Turk playing his own composition, but a number of recordings exist that give a good feel for how Turk approached the piece. But no mater how each man plays it, the Trombone Rag remains as much of a test as it was designed to be – one of the true masterpieces of the traditional jazz repertoire.