“Seven Positions” tm Presents Fred Sturm: Matrix Bass Trombonist, Educator and Arranger

For the uninitiated, the concept of a nine piece fusion band which features two trombonists (both tenor and bass), must seem like a dream. Matrix was (and is), a dream come true. From Wisconsin, they traveled the world with original and refreshing jazz. Their first bass trombonist, and an important writer for the group, was Fred Sturm. Sturm would later lead outstanding jazz programs at Lawrence University, Eastman School of Music, and Birch Creek Academy while gaining a reputation as an arranger and a human being extraordinaire. davidbrubeck.com is overjoyed to host Matrix Bass Trombonist Fred Sturm as the seventh and final installment of the second partial of “Seven Positions”.

-11st Position
What do you look for in an instrument?

I’ve been out of the playing loop (concentrating on writing and teaching) for almost 20 years, so my answers will no doubt be dated! Back in my playing days, I was drawn to horns with dark, rich timbres.  I wanted something that wouldn’t break up when I hit it hard dynamically, but I didn’t want to meet too much resistance. I had a strong, full lower register but wrestled with the top end, so I searched for instruments with nice open upper registers.  Because my road days in the ’70s required performance on bass trombone, euphonium, and valve trombone, I searched for horns that would be somewhat consistently disposed in color and timbre and would allow for rapid-fire changes between the instruments (sometimes all 3 on a single tune).  I played a Bach Bass Trombone, a Willson Euphonium, and had the privilege of owning one of Rich Matteson’s valve trombones.

2nd Position
How do you conceive of an ideal tone quality?

My Dad was a cellist with the Chicago Symphony and my Mom was an operatic contralto, so I had incredible timbral models in my home long before I ever picked up an instrument. Dad and Mom both talked so often about sound. The recordings playing in our home were those fabulous CSO masterpieces with Fritz Reiner conducting — Bartok, Wagner, Respighi — what fabulous blueprints!

3rd PositionUnknown
What is your secret to a beautiful legato?

You’ll get much better answers than mine from the “big guys!” I started out as a trumpet player in high school, so I tried to carry over the natural legato (with no tongue) of the trumpet to the “doo” tonguing on the trombone. I wanted to completely obscure the “click” or “pop” on the edge of the legato note changes. I remembered thinking “loo.” Kind of a feathering of the “doo” with the softest tongue touch to separate the notes.

4th Position
What helps you achieve musical expression?

As a player, I emulated great musical models. For my classical side, I loved the great classical cellists (including Dad) like Rostropovich and Casals. I always loved the great Bordogni-Rochut Etudes and the Bach Cello Suites — and tried to play them, other etudes, and solo/chamber/orchestral lyrical performances with a total dedication to the line. For my jazz playing, I always admired the players with beautiful sounds — Bob Brookmeyer, Carl Fontana, George Roberts, Jim Pugh — and the spirited, energetic, fluid players like J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Frank Rosolino.

Unknown-35th Position
Name two inspirations. One musical. One non-musical.

My favorite trombone recording of all time is Jimmy Cleveland playing Gil Evans’ arrangement of “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” Gets me in the heart every time!

For non-musical, it may sound like a stock answer, but for me, it’s Susie, my wife of 36 years — she’s brought my 2 children, love, devotion, and wonderful humor to my life. She’s been privy to all of my musical pursuits since we first met as well.

6th Position
What were your roles in Matrix, and how did the arrangements conceive ofthe bass trombone? What do you feel the group achieved?

I’m proud to have been one of the 9 founding members of that wonderful band. I was one of the band’s two primary writers along with my mentor, dear friend, and band-mate John Harmon who created the bulk of the Matrix repertoire.

As noted above, I played bass trombone, euphonium, valve trombone, a polyphonic string synthesizer (quite innovative instrument for it’s time) playing pseudo strings and sustained color patches (I had no chops!), and I contributed to the group’s background vocals. Matrix hit right when the big bands — namely Woody, Stan, Buddy, and Maynard — were starting to slow down, and I’m proud of the fact that we quit playing “covers” in bars and clubs and took the giant step toward creating our own original book. Starved for a while but were committed to doing our own thing, which still sounds pretty unique decades later. We had a fine 6-piece horn section and 3 rhythm players, but so many of the horn players could play keys, sing, and double on other horns. We were never really commercially successful, but I wouldn’t trade my 4 years with the band for anything.

After Matrix, I had the honor and joy of serving as a bass trombonist in
both the North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band and then the Eastman Jazz
Ensemble during my graduate years. I learned a boatload about big band
playing and conducting from Leon Breeden (UNT) and my great mentor Rayburn Wright at Eastman.

7th Position FSUnknown-2
How did arranging and composing informed your bass trombone playing and vice-versa?

I’ve heard many other trombonists who compose and arrange talk about learning to hear music from the inside of an ensemble — being situated in the middle of a big band, etc. But many of us fail to admit what is likely the TRUE impetus (!) — which is our constant search for an identity amidst groups of exciting lead trumpet players, dynamic drummers, killer sax soloists, singers, etc. Specific to your question, I was playing bass trombone before I wrote anything of significance, so almost everything I’ve done since my 20s as a writer has demonstrated a strong knowledge of the proclivities and limits of the bass trombone and the trombone section.

As I wrote more, I discovered a much greater respect and empathy for my ensemble role as a bass trombonist — I learned to zero in more effectively on the segments doubling with bass and/or bari, whose note I was doubling in the wind section stacking, and most notably — something I preach constantly to my student bass trombonists in my big bands — is to carefully discern if one’s part is occupying root functions or being stationed more tightly up into the trombone section voicings. With those awarenesses, the bass trombonist can either brighten up and thin out to emulate the smaller bores in the trombone section above you, add warmth to the bass trombone and baritone sax combinations, and supply some “woof” and punch when bass line roles call for it.

What is the best trombone playing you have ever heard?

For me, it will probably always be Bob Brookmeyer. I loved his style, his sound, his sense of time, his command of the harmony, and most of all, his incredible lyrical sense. I think my favorite solos Bob ever recorded was on “Someday My Prince Will Come” with his quartet.

What is the best trombone playing you have done?

Not much out there to cheer for! I think it was probably my role as bass trombonist with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble; we had such great music to play, and I felt that I was in solid shape to handle those significant duties.

I think the best trombone WRITING I’ve done was my recent chart for the great Jim Pugh; Jim visited our campus, and during a great dinner hang at Vince Lombardi’s Restaurant in Appleton WI after the concert, I asked him to name a tune he’s always wanted to play with a big band and I’d arrange it for him. He chose Enrico Rava’s beautiful “Diva,” which I scored a year or two later. We recorded the accompaniment with my Lawrence University Jazz Ensemble in Appleton and had Jim dub his solo separately down in Champaign-Urbana. Jim’s a musical hero of mine and one of the great gentlemen in our field. You can hear the track on YouTube at:

c. 2013 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved davidbrubeck.com

Images appear courtesy of Fred Sturm and matrixjazz.com

Editor’s note: Sturm does not appear on the three Matrix recordings currently available.

Interested in more “Seven Positions” tm Interviews?
Charlie Vernon
James Markey
Chris Brubeck
Doug Yeo
Jeremy Morrow
Tom Everett
Gerry Pagano
Ben van Dijk
Randall Hawes
Denson Paul Pollard
Thomas Matta
Fred Sturm
Bill Reichenbach
Massimo Pirone
Erik Van Lier
Jennifer Wharton
Matyas Veer
Stefan Schulz

c. 2013/2014 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved davidbrubeck.com

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