Jennifer Wharton: Trombone Ecstasy

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Jennifer Wharton

(Photo: John Abbott)

The trombone’s warm, reverberating sound often goes unappreciated, contends Jennifer Wharton. Look to jazz history for the reason: The trombone, once the bellwether of swing, lost its popular footing when bebop arrived. Slides just can’t move as fast as valves.

“People forget that the trombone is so glorious,” Wharton remarked in a remote interview from her New York home. “It can be like going to church, or getting ready for battle. It can be a lot of things.”

Wharton, a bass trombonist, continues to challenge the prevailing view of her chosen instrument with Not A Novelty, her second Sunnyside album featuring Bonegasm, her trombone quartet with rhythm section. The March release serves as a timely sequel to the group’s self-titled 2019 debut, an uncommon record that landed on the jazz charts within a week of its launch.

“As a trombone album,” Wharton said, still marveling at the anomaly of it.

Bonegasm’s sophomore album rides on the unexpected momentum of this debut: Subsidized by a 2019 grant from the New York City Women’s Fund, Wharton’s latest effort sees the return of the group’s core players — besides Wharton, veteran trombonists John Fedchock, Alan Ferber and Nate Mayland, along with bassist Evan Gregor, drummer Don Peretz and pianist Michael Eckroth. Two jazz luminaries also signed on to the project: Grammy-winners Kurt Elling, on an exceptional vocal track, and percussionist Samuel Torres, on two electric Latin tunes.

To be sure, much of Wharton’s career to date defies the norm. First, there just aren’t that many trombonists, especially bass trombonists, heading up jazz ensembles of any sort — much less trombone-centric groups. Further, Wharton came to this calling mid-career, after years of symphonic training and performance. She studied classical trombone at Los Medanos College in California before transferring to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, furthering her studies post-graduation at the Manhattan School of Music. Ultimately, she landed on Broadway as an in-demand pit musician. Arguably, however, for many years the most anomalous thing about her career was her gender.

“For a long time I was the only female bass trombonist in New York,” Wharton recalled. “And when I first moved here [in 2005], I was the only female trombonist playing on Broadway.”

Since Wharton’s first days in New York, her career — and the music business — have changed considerably. For one, Wharton is no longer the only female trombonist in town. Today, players like Sara Jacovino, Natalie Cressman and Andrea Neumann also claim top spots on prominent jazz, theater and studio gigs.

But opening new doors seems to be part of Wharton’s creative persona: Where others see novelty, she sees opportunity. This broad-mindedness is what led her, ultimately, to jazz. As the exigencies of gigging moved her further afield from the classical world, her interest in improvisatory music grew — largely the result of her exposure to the high-profile jazz musicians she was meeting on various big band gigs.

Wharton had always played in big bands, from her school days through her theater stints, sometimes subbing out her Broadway seat to take those jobs as they arose. In the chart-heavy world of big band, what she might have lacked in improvising experience she made up for in technical expertise. “I love sight-reading, and there’s a lot of sight-reading in big bands,” she said. “So, they became my happy place.”

In these ensembles, the jazz musicians’ creative approaches to playing “lit a fire under my ass,” she added. “I was comfortable with not trying anything. But for musicians, being stagnant is one of the worst things there is. So, I was really unhappy, even though I was working. It took the presence of bass trombonists [who were improvising] — a thing that I never thought I was supposed to do — that led me to do something about it. That’s when I fell in love with Alan’s tune and saw what could be.”

In 2016, Alan Ferber was recording his first big band album, with Wharton in the bass trombone chair. His arrangement of “North Rampart,” a soulful anthem originally written for nonet, came as a revelation to the classically trained player.

“It was the first time that I’d ever wanted to improvise,” she said. “I never felt like I had anything to say until I heard that song. It hit me like a ton of bricks.”

This bit of inspiration opened the door to Wharton’s next epiphany: to form a trombone-based ensemble that would push the frequently overlooked horn into the spotlight.

“In January 2016, my husband [John Fedchock] and I were asked to play in a jazz trombone quartet,” Wharton remembered. “This group was the first time that I heard what I’d been imagining and wanting to do. And [I realized that] I am totally qualified to do this. I’ve played in a zillion big bands, this is exactly the music I want to do, and there’s not a ton of music out there for it. But, how to do it? I decided to put the band together first, then commission pieces for the trombone.”

Within a year, Wharton had formed Bonegasm, performing customized arrangements by trombonists Jacovino and Robin Eubanks, bassist Edward Perez and the band’s own players. Then, in March 2018, the group, now squarely on its feet, went into the studio to record that initial charting album, which included Ferber’s “North Rampart,” this time arranged for four trombones.

From the start, Wharton worried that the septet might fall into trombone clichés, with the bass trombone at the greatest disadvantage. What Wharton wanted was to borrow from the big band template, but modify it to suit her individual aesthetic.

“My instrument is basically a workhorse in almost every situation,” she said. “It’s a very physical instrument to play. It can be very musical, but many times people don’t play it that way. I was searching for a deeper role [for the instrument]. That’s what has been difficult for me, to explain that to the people who are writing for me. It isn’t just that I want to be featured, but that I want to be an important part of this thing. I can’t play just the normal bass trombone part, like roots and fifths.”

Wharton found the arrangers who understood her concerns among the big band musicians with whom she’d worked over the years. Unsurprisingly, the better these players understood the instrument and its idiosyncrasies, the better their writing for the septet.

“It was easy to go to that well because they’re used to writing for four trombones,” she said. “You just take away the other elements of the big band and leave the meat of the arrangement.”

The arrangements that her commissioned musicians came up with for Not A Novelty run the stylistic gamut from blues to swing to Latin to modern jazz to revamped alt-rock. The through-line amid all of this heterogeneity, however, is the primacy of the trombone’s rounded tones, either grouped or solo.

Ferber’s chic arrangement of saxophonist Chris Cheek’s “Ice Fall,” for example, accentuates the forward positioning of the ensemble’s core quartet against the rhythm section, just as Wharton imagined. The tune’s clean, waltzing lines progress in unison, break into deep-hued harmonies and fall away into solo turns for each of the trombonists without ever losing the balanced timbre of the ensemble.

But if Ferber’s arrangement of “Ice Fall” displays the ensemble’s traditionalist bent, pianist Carmen Staaf’s “Manta Rays” shows their ease with shifting rhythmicity and complex sonic patterns. Staaf, known for her exciting modern compositions rather than large ensemble writing, brought one of the more adventurous tunes to the album. This original, soaring on a breezy head, flirts at times with dissonance and jagged melody, puncturing any expectations of conformity in the brass.

In a nod to Latin America’s rich contribution to trombone music, Wharton also added two Cuban jazz titles to the album’s program. The opener, “Bongasmo,” by ensemble pianist Eckroth, rings with vivacity, enhanced by Mayland’s vibrant soloing and Torres’ riveting percussion. Later on the record, Torres brings the same exhilaration to Manuel Valera’s “La Otra Mano,” with its darkly dramatic spin on the Latin groove.

These last two tunes especially evince Wharton’s ideas on the role of the rhythm section in a brass-led ensemble: These three players furnish most of the album’s propulsive movement, thus allowing the trombones to explore the melodic terrain so often denied them in large group settings.

Wharton also appreciates the rhythm section’s savvy improvising, and not just for the energy that their solos add to the record. “[They] give our faces a chance to get the blood back into them,” she joked.

Affectionate quips aside, listen to bassist Gregor on Ferber’s quirky “Union Blues,” a tune full of drag and depth. His motile solos leave a subtle imprint on the ear, one that guides the listener through the intriguing turns of phrase and deviations from standard blues. Similarly, drummer Peretz’s delicate touch on “Face Value,” saxophone Remy Le Boeuf’s odd-meter vignette, imbues the track with subtle color and infectious motion.

Pianist Eckroth provides most of the comping on the album, finessing quixotic harmonic shifts — on Ayn Inserto’s “Blue Salt,” for example — and soloing elegantly (“Face Value,” “Manta Rays,” “La Otra Mano”). But it’s during his rippling solo on “Little Cupcake,” pushing against the edges of the tune’s tonality, that he reveals his modernist leanings.

“Little Cupcake,” Fedchock’s billet-doux to Wharton, lends itself to such exuberance. In writing the deceptively simple piece, Fedchock sought to capture the dichotomous nature of his wife of 10 years.

Once he understood this as his motivation, “the chart almost wrote itself,” he said.

“Jen is very sweet, but she has a bawdy side,” he explained. “Every time she comes out with a bawdy comment, I say, ‘That’s my little cupcake.’ So, like Jen, this one has a sweetness to it. But there’s a part where the harmony gets deeper, that shows her depth as a person.”

Wharton’s appreciation for blue humor is most obvious in the name she selected for the band. She defines “bonegasm” as “a climax of musical excitement, characterized by feelings of pleasure centered in the ears and experienced as an accompaniment to hearing a group of trombones.”

Fedchock also honors Wharton on the Tori Amos song “Twinkle,” not just with his orchestral-sounding arrangement, but with his soothing, buttery solo — one of the most personal performances on the album.

“Jen has been in love with this tune ever since she was a kid, so I had to approach it with a lot of reverence,” he said. “The tune is basically one or two chords, so I wanted to find a way to infuse it with more jazz sounds, more variations on harmonic ideas that still worked within the confines of [Amos’] melody without changing it.”

Wharton’s playing resounds through all of the tracks on Not A Novelty, and she solos on six — more than any other player on the album. Her standout performance, however, appears on the remarkable final track: “The Day I Tried To Live,” a Soundgarden grunge song from the mid-1990s.

Arranged by bandleader Darcy James Argue, the Bonegasm rendition of this powerhouse cut pairs Wharton’s growling horn with Elling’s gritty vocals, tightly stacked horns pealing on either side as the tune descends into tumult. Intentionally or not, at times a horn will sound like a voice, and the voice will sound like a horn. Should any questions linger as to what the bass trombone can do, this would be track to listen to.

Bonegasm had rehearsed the album only once before the coronavirus forced New York City into lockdown in March 2020. Fedchock, as the album’s producer, bore the brunt of the recording’s COVID-related challenges. Not only did he set up remote rehearsing, but he also deferred the session for a few months while the band worked on their parts individually.

Trickiest of all, however, was the recording session itself — neither Elling nor Mayland could travel to Brooklyn for the date and had to overdub their parts. Without Mayland in the studio, Fedchock, on lead trombone, had to nail the intonation on each tune without the harmonic support of the full quartet. Phrasing issues that would normally be handled in rehearsal got fixed either on the session or in post-production. As a result, editing ended up costing twice as much as usual.

The grant from New York City’s Women’s Fund helped to defray some of these costs. This is fortuitous, Wharton said, because by the time Broadway reopens, she’ll have been without work for almost two years.

While she waits for work to return, however, Wharton is anything but idle. In mid-2020 she accepted a scholarship for a master’s program in jazz performance at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, New Jersey. There, she’s strengthening her improvisation skills and studying jazz composition/arranging for the first time.

“The scholarship just fell into my lap,” Wharton said. “I saw a posting in a Facebook group for female/trans/non-binary brass players — it said that [the university] was looking for a female trombone player to do a master’s. They really push there for complete representation, which is beautiful. You know, I hate that I got the spot just because I’m female. But someone has got to do it, so why shouldn’t it be me?”

During the work hiatus, Wharton is happy to take this step back and fill the gaps in her practical knowledge of jazz, difficult as that is after decades as a professional instrumentalist. It’s her responsibility as a band leader, she believes, to keep raising the standard for her ensemble.

Already, this course of study bears fruit. Earlier this year, Wharton received her first commission as a composer in her own right. The resultant piece, she says, will definitely be on her next album, which will mark her emergence as a jazz arranger/composer. This is a door she’s yet to open, a threshold she’s yet to cross. But someone’s got to write for the trombone. Why shouldn’t it be her? DB



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