When the final backdrop rolled away at the Kennedy Center Ceremony honoring the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader and composer Dave Brubeck, the band revealed was comprised of his four sons: Darius on piano, Dan on drums, Matthew on ‘cello and Chris on Bass Trombone. Chris Brubeck’s commanding presence and musicianship brought the bass trombone to the forefront of a nationally televised audience. This is nothing new for Chris, and it is difficult to imagine a bass trombonist who has accomplished more widespread exposure for the instrument in recent years. Whether on tour with his father in jazz’s most storied venues, leading the Brubeck Brothers on tour and up the Gavin Charts, or performing one of the revolutionary bass trombone concertos he has composed, Chris Brubeck is one of the most visible and successful bass trombone soloists in both classical music and jazz. And he does it all while holding down his ‘day job’ as a bassist and composer. Chris Brubeck is delightful third installment of Seven Positions.
What do you look for in either instrument?
I have to confess that I am about as far from being an instrument, mouthpiece or valve gadget guru as you can be. What I am is a creature of habit and a versatile musician. I spend more time playing my 1969 Rickenbacker Fretless Bass than I do playing my bass bone. I bet there are a number of things about my horn that hold me back a bit, but there are a lot of things I like about my old Holton horn too.
I play a Holton TR185 which arrived by mail to our Connecticut house the day before I went to The National Music Camp in 1963. The summer before, I went to the New England Music Camp and the French Horn instructor, Louis Stout had a deal with Holton and hooked me up with the process of ordering and buying the horn at a discount. I knew he wouldn’t steer me wrong. I know it is unbelievable, but I have played this one bass trombone ever since. It was supposed to have 2 triggers but arrived only with one and I flew off to Michigan the next day one valve short but challenged enough about learning how to use the F attachment. I was playing a Selmer pea shooter before that and I knew I had, for whatever reasons, a naturally good low range and a naturally bad high range. I figured why fight Mother Nature and decided to concentrate on bass trombone.
How do you conceive of (describe/visualize) an ideal tone quality for each instrument?
There are lots of wonderful and different approaches to making a sound on the instrument. I would add from a personal taste perspective that I don’t like the diaphragm vibrato approach so much. I believe that the trombone is the only Western brass instrument that HAS the ability to create a vibrato with a slide. I often think about how much I love recordings of the Hammond B3 and how the spinning Leslie speaker kicks in at different times to add expression to the music. We “spin” our sound as brass players too and I think it is an appropriate tool to use on the trombone varying a straight tone or a slight vibrato to end a phrase. That notion comes a lot from hearing Paul Desmond on the alto sax all my life and checking out how he lyrically tapered his phrase ends. I loved J.J. Johnson’s sound and had a book by him when I was starting out. By contrast I totally love Wycliff Gordon’s “rough and tumble” approach as well. What I also really like and strive for is a big Classical music taboo. In the same way that I like the coarse sound of a singer like Joe Cocker over Johnny Mathis, I like to hear notes “split” and 2 octaves seep through the tone in a subtle way.
Regarding my bass, I got it before the world or I heard Jaco Pastorius who revolutionized the electric bass concept with his new sound, but I got my fretless Rickenbacker because it sounded MORE like an upright than anything like Jaco’s tone. I wanted to use the more upright bass sound in rock and took it into my jazz life. I grew up listening to Eugene Wright in my Dad’s group and he was a meat and potatoes kind of player from Chicago. I really gravitated to that concept of “holding the fort” while every one else was exploring off the musical charts. Plus it was very practical to put my bass guitar in an overhead bin on the plane and not have to buy a seat for Mr. B. Fiddle. This meant also that I always had to check my trombone down below in cargo. Thankfully Protec is finally making a hard plastic molded case that doesn’t cost a fortune, protects your horn adequately and isn’t made out of canvas and balsa wood as in previous years.
What is your secret to a beautiful legato?
My most influential teachers were Dave Sporny at the Interlochen Arts Academy and, by total contrast, Glen Smith at the University of Michigan in the early 70s. Sporny was an all-around player who exposed me to a lot of literature but he totally understood jazz. Smith wasn’t into jazz very much and he made me play a lot of Bach with an emphasis on connecting the notes and phrases in a warm legato style as smoothly and as musically as possible. At the time I was studying with Smith I missed jazz input from a teacher, but in the long run some of his emphasis on legato phrasing rubbed off and contributed to whatever legato game I’ve got.
What helps you achieve musical expression?
One of my pet theories (and perhaps peeves) is that music doesn’t come alive unless the performer understands where to place accents to enable the line and phrase to make musical sense. Beyond the accents I feel that the performer has to commit to a mood or a “vibe” they want to express when playing a piece. I feel the soloist has to convey an emotional story to the audience and have the technical competence to let the audience relax and appreciate where the musical approach is taking them.
Name two inspirations. One musical and one non-musical.
I know in my case it’s a rather predictable response but I would be fooling myself if I didn’t admit that my father, his talent, his musical eclecticism and hard work ethic, were a major influence on the kind of musician and composer that I have become. I know you only asked for two inspirations but I’m going to also throw in that I was deeply inspired by the Beatles and also by Bach and Stravinsky. For a non-musical inspiration, I think I’d have to pick Mark Twain. I have loved reading his works since I was a kid and got re-acquainted with him a few years ago when I was commissioned to write a piece based on his life. Twain had a deep social conscience and used his abundant imagination and sense of humor to make powerful insights into the American psyche.
What challenges and attributes does the bass trombone bring to small group jazz?
Sometimes it’s hard for people who are not trombone players to understand and utilize the differences between bass and tenor trombone. Depending on the player, usually a bass trombone player can’t be expected to pull off all of the “traditional” tenor sax and trombone leads in the bop jazz combo setting. Yet, if you do it right, it can be a fine instrument in a small ensemble. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, I used to play with a horn funk band sometimes and be asked to replace the bari sax functions in a Tower of Power-like horn section. That was challenging and fun. There was a lot of funky huffing and puffing!
7th Position CB
What is your vision of the role the bass trombone in jazz?
This kind of goes along with my last answer. I think if you know what you’re doing with it, the bass trombone can be really versatile. In my jazz group, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, we usually have tunes where I’m doubling the melody with electric jazz guitar and it’s a really cool sound. On the other hand, we usually do one track on each CD where my bass trombone is the lead instrument and everything from the key that’s chosen to the accompaniment is built around featuring the bass trombone. It is certainly an instrument that is capable of holding its own and making a soulful melodic statement. Most trends in music are cyclical; it is hard to believe that there was a time in jazz where the trombone was as much the dominant solo instrument as the sax is today. I keep thinking there has to be a breaking point where the audience says they just can’t bear to hear one more tenor sax player (especially in the smooth jazz recording world) that is derivative of Grover Washington, Jr. My fervent hope is that bass trombone and trombone will prove to be a pleasing alternative in the future.
Best trombone playing you’ve ever heard?
I’ve heard some amazing trombone playing in my life and I cannot possibly narrow it down to one performance. I can mention several times when I’ve been lucky enough to her live something that really stuck with me for years. I remember being blown away at a jazz festival in Germany when I heard Albert Mangelsdorf put on an amazing display of multiphonic playing. I certainly remember being blown away hearing Doug Yeo playing John Williams’ tuba concerto with Boston on bass trombone. Fortunately for me, I also got to hear him play both my trombone concertos with Boston, and it was really thrilling to hear him tear through them with such technical mastery. In more recent years, I’ve heard the wonderful jazz player, John Allred, play who I think deserves much wider recognition. There are dozens of players who deserve to be on my short list — I’ve heard many wonderful musicians play this instrument. Right now there’s probably some kid in Kearney, Nebraska who no one has heard of yet, who is playing his buns off!
Best trombone playing you’ve ever done?
For a long time, I felt the best trombone playing I ever did was on a magical afternoon when I was a kid studying at the Interlochen Arts Academy. We were on tour playing at Orchestra Hall in Chicago and got to hear the famous Chicago Symphony rehearse. The brass section at that time was legendary! We young brass players were thrilled to meet the Chicago Symphony musicians backstage after their rehearsal. To my utter shock and delight, Edward Kleinhammer offered to play some duets with me. In my fantasy memory of that occasion I was so inspired by his generosity and musical presence, that I played at the top of my classical game. Only God knows if this was true or whether my memory has been distorted through the haze of shock. Another time I played at Carnegie Hall back in the 70s and was featured playing a ballad with my father’s quartet. I got lucky that night — everything my brain thought of doing, my lips and slide accomplished! Also for whatever reason I really connected deeply with the audience. In that case I had a bit of outside confirmation because there was a review in the NY Post where the critic called it “some of the best trombone playing I’ve ever heard.” Lord knows what his previous listening experiences were, but sometimes things work out well. I’m also quite proud that in the last 3 months I’ve played each of my 3 trombone concertos with 3 different orchestras (in Moscow, California and France) and gotten a wildly enthusiastic reception. If you had told me back when I was a student at Interlochen that I’d be able to do that when I was 60, I would have thought you were nuts!
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