Bill Reichenbach is a multiple-instrument master of brass. From tenor trombone on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, to bass trombone on numerous Hollywood films, commercials and a solo with Buddy Rich on “Wave”, Bill Reichenbach has surpassed all the expectations for the bass trombone and redefined new ones.
I remember first hearing “A Train”, from the Don Menza Sextet, which featured bass trombone ensemble playing and a bass trombone improvised solo! I listened over and over and marveled at playing unlike any I had previously heard. It might have been comparable to a reception from an eligible offensive lineman to win a “Superbowl”. davidbrubeck.com is thrilled to present the legendary Bill Reichenbach as the first respondent in the third series of “Seven Positions”
What do you look for in an instrument?
I wish I could find a horn that not only plays itself, but can drive itself to the gig. Falling short of that, I like horns that are quick and responsive.
I’ve been playing Conn bass trombones for quite some time. They feel like they vibrate when you’re playing them. I like that. I’m using one of a couple of Greenhoe Conn-type horns that I was lucky enough to get before he decided to close up shop.
Specifically, I’ve always tried to find a horn that responds well also in the double trigger range, so one of the first things I do is try the low “B”.
Just a habit by now, I guess.
How do you conceive of an ideal tone quality for a ballad? For bop? In the
One of my main considerations about sound is whether I’m playing solo, the only trombone in a small “horn” section, or in a trombone section.
For a ballad, I try to make it as vocal as possible, but instead of a Rochut type vocal style, it would be more like a jazz singer, particularly when it comes to vibrato and bending notes, etc. Those influences could come from Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, my brother Kurt . . . many others . . .
For bebop improv playing, on bass trombone, one issue is lightness and agility. The soloing range is down near the string bass and surrounded by the drums (sonically) so it’s a good idea, I think, to be able to differentiate your sound from whatever else is going on in that register. Probably, accentuating the highs can help. Overall, when I’m playing jazz (improv), I’m thinking about time feel more than sound and by trying to stay crisp and clear on the time, the sound gets lighter on its own . . . or, at least I hope it does.
In the studio, there are a couple of very different requirements. On the larger film orchestral dates, with a trombone section, I try to play as orchestrally as possible while keeping the time as accurate as I can. When I say orchestrally, the difference between the studio and the concert hall, I think, is in the focus of the sound. We play into mikes that are either quite or too close or 10 to 15 feet away, or in front of the whole orchestra. Quite often, all of these mike set-ups will be there at the same time and the engineer and composer will pick the tone quality they like best. So getting a good core sound is probably going to give them what they need to work with.
On smaller dates, like pop and rock records, I try to go with the other instruments in the room or the ones on the track. If it’s something like 2 trumpets and a sax or 2, and I’m playing only bass trombone, the sound concept could be a bit like a bari sax or like the other bass instruments on the track, like Fender Bass or synth bass.
Usually, on horn section dates, I’ll play tenor trombone on one track, and then add the bass trombone on another track.
What is your secret to a beautiful legato, especially for a ballad?
To the extent that I can actually succeed in getting “the legato” to work well, it relates back to a couple of great teachers I was very lucky to spend time with.
One was Bob Isele. He had recently retired from the job of soloist with the U.S. Marine Band.
The first note I heard out of Bob’s horn changed my whole life. I know that might seem like a bit much, but hearing his sound and the way he approached playing, from the standpoint of relaxed air, and getting a beautiful vocal quality without having to rely on vibrato, and eventually my trying to play the Melodious Etudes in unison with him . . . all that set me up for my time with Emory Remington at Eastman. Bob had studied with Remington for one year before going into the Marine Band and, while not professing to be an orchestral player, he had the greatest trombone sound I’d ever heard. All based on air. And playing vocally.
So I had two similar but slightly different versions of the same idea . . . to play like you’re singing.
I’m still trying to get it right.
What helps you achieve musical expression, particularly when soloing?
If it comes out like a musical expression, I feel lucky. So often, in the studio, when that rare chance to solo comes up, it’s sometimes very difficult to step back from it enough to let it just happen. It’s often a space in which you have to get from the beginning to the end of and getting past that mind set is something that I’ve tried to do over the years with occasional but not consistent success. Sometimes, I find that if I get my mind off the notes and more on the time feel, and allow space, it might turn out resembling music a little better.
Name two types of inspirations.
As I get older, I’m inspired by musicians that sound more natural than technical. This can also relate to composers. Bach remains a great source of inspiration starting with the perfection of his chorales and Cello Suites. Even a trombone player with clumsy fingers can play through the chorales on piano. Obviously, Bach’s technique was beyond comparison, but when you think of the speed at which he had to produce music, he was certainly a natural musician.
I’m always inspired by great visual arts, from photography to painting to architecture. On my few trips to Europe, I’ve found myself spending a good deal of time just looking at art and design, especially as it relates to being the background of daily life.
I’ve also been getting a lot of pleasure, and I guess inspiration, from cooking. There’s a visual component, an improvisational component, and it can be a bit like orchestrating. But less pressure . . .
And making ice cream.
And wine drinking . . .
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Why is Los Angeles such a special place for great trombone playing? What have
you drawn from that tradition and expertise, and what might you have added to
When I was deciding where to move to try to build a career, I already knew that I wanted to be a recording player, so at that time, in 1975, the two choices were New York and L.A. I figured that L.A. would be an easier place to sleep on the street if it came to that. Warmer . . . no snow . . .
The variety of recording work here in L.A. has always been great and players are expected to do a lot of different kinds of things. That was something that interested me. I think that might also have something to do with the overall quality of the players here. Like, you have to have sound and style flexibility to be able to function as a studio player here. I’ve been very lucky to sit next to some of the Greats. It’s made me examine what I’m trying to do constantly. I’m not sure what I might have added to the L.A. trombone scene . . . Maybe the doubling thing . . . when I came out here, there were only a few players that really sounded convincing on tenor and bass trombone. My favorite was the great Lew McCreary. He was primarily a tenor player but he could do amazing things on bass trombone. I don’t think he ever got the credit for being one of the truly great bass trombonists. He was a good friend and an inspiration.
My doubling life had started quite young, with my first instrument being drum set. When I started playing trombone, I became interested in most of the other brass instruments and I would borrow old horns and try to figure out how to make them work. That “musical playtime” benefited me more than I could have ever known. These days, most tenor trombonists are expected to play pretty good bass trombone and bass trombonists are expected to play contra bass and possibly tuba and then there’s the occasional bass trumpet, euphonium, valve trombone, etc. A lot of these doubles are showing up in the pits of show bands, too. I guess it relates to cost . . . it’s cheaper to have one player playing several instruments than to have a different player for each instrument. Fewer players working . . . not so good.
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What opportunities shaped your ability as a bass trombone soloist? What are the best paths available to younger cats today?
Generally, those opportunities are self created and/or rare. When I was younger, I thought of jazz playing in terms of tenor trombone and hadn’t really come to terms with soloing on bass trombone except for occasionally doing it as a change of color on a regular jazz gig. At Eastman, I was a jazz and commercial tenor trombone player and a sort of legit bass trombone player and I kept those things separate. I wish I had done otherwise because I think I might be more natural at playing jazz on bass trombone by now.
I suggest that younger players today who want to solo on bass trombone should spend time developing a good vocabulary in whatever style they want to perform. I say that because jazz is not the only solo venue. But whatever the style, players will have to encourage writers and leaders of groups that the bass trombone is a valid solo voice. So you have to be ready if someone says “OK, yes, here play this”. In addition, creating one’s own music is a good exercise to keep working on, either in the background or the foreground. For most of us, music playing started as a hobby.
When that hobby becomes the “job”, it can change somewhat. So, having a creative outlet, like working on a solo project can be good for your head. It can take you back to the “hobby” of music. I think that’s where it’s most pure.
What is the best trombone playing you have ever heard?
Wow, that’s a very tough and tricky question. If I start listing names, this could go on for a while, and I would undoubtedly forget someone, so I’m just going to mention the player who probably had the greatest long range influence on me.
That was my teacher, Bob Isele. I mentioned him above. You can find recordings of some of his Marine Band solos and they are really amazing, but what I experienced when I heard him play in the little den of my parents house was something hard to define. His incredible ease of playing almost anything, combined with his humility and generosity, gave so much to me and showed me a perfect example of how to deal with my life as a musician.
What is the best trombone playing you have done?
This is the hardest question yet . . .
Sometimes, I think a few of the things on my album that I did some years ago are OK.
Once, I played a Honda commercial for a great writer named Don Piestrup, who used to do many, many jingles out here in L.A. This spot was about bears in the woods, who eventually drove this Honda SUV away out of the shot. The music was three tracks of me playing bass trombone . . . kind of a George Roberts with Nelson Riddle-styled part with two more accompanying bass trombone parts, plus finger snaps and whistling (Jerry Hey). It was a pretty cute spot and got the attention of a lot of my friends here in the studios. But the funny part is that another trombone player in another city somewhere to the east of here, was telling everyone that it was him playing it. Maybe he had played something similar. But I was flattered.
I recently did an album called “Intrada” with the Dave Slonaker Big Band on which I had a bass trumpet solo. I played bass trombone otherwise on this album. Dave’s a great writer. By the time you read this, it will have won a Grammy or not.
There have been a couple of commercial recording projects over the years that I feel good about. I think my all-time favorite is the Al Jarreau “High Crime” album (but that was almost entirely on alto trombone so it probably shouldn’t count here). Also, the Michael Jackson albums produced by Quincy Jones like “Thriller” and “Off The Wall” were highlights for me. We are in the midst of doing some tunes on an album by a great young band called “Dirty Loops” which is not out yet but the tunes are amazing and Jerry Hey has written some very startling horn parts.
Otherwise, I’m hoping that my best playing is still in the future.
Please compare the different approaches to the soloistic use of the bass
trombone regarding your experiences with:
On Buddy’s band, the bass trombone wasn’t usually a featured instrument. Yeah, like that’s a surprise. But, there was an arrangement of “Wave” that John LaBarbera wrote for my friend John Leys. I replaced John on the band just in time to record that solo. My first time playing that chart with the band on the road was very typical . . . put the music up and read it. No rehearsal . . . there was never any rehearsal for a new player that came on the band. You just showed up, put on the dumb suit (hopefully it fit) and tried to get through the gig. Prior to playing with Buddy, I had been at Eastman, where I was playing a lot of jazz and lead on tenor trombone and trying to learn what jazz playing was all about (what it was REALLY all about). So when I stood up to play “Wave” for the first time, I played like I figured a jazz player would play a ballad. Some give and take on the time and phrasing, etc. (The chart was actually a Bossa Nova of sorts.) This approach didn’t set well with Buddy, who called an intermission and as he walked past me, he said “you better learn to play with some time, mxxxxfxxxxr.” Or something like that. So I had to figure out how to play the solo part so it would seem like I was playing some personal phrasing, while playing things that I thought Buddy could comfortably identify with.
Sometime later, he started asking me to get up and play jazz solos . . . most likely on “Basically Blues” (blues in “G”). I think it was the novelty of having a bass trombone player who even wanted to play jazz that got his attention. I’m not sure how he found out that I did that kind of thing. He also made me come over every once in a while and play his drums while he would grab a trumpet and go out front, pretending to play it. That was awkward . . . me playing his drums, I mean. I had played drums most of my life, but not his drums . . . in front of his audience.
But it was kinda’ funny . . .
When Frank Rosolino passed away, Don asked me to join his sextet. That was pretty scary. I wasn’t sure I could even play the parts much less, the solos. But it was a great experience for me. Chuck Findley was the trumpet player on the band and he plays very good trombone, so every once in a while, on the last set, we’d switch horns for a tune. I try to stay away from that small mouthpiece these days.
The sextet was also the nucleus of Don’s Big Band. In both groups, I was playing tenor. Then we did an album (before CDs) with the sextet called “Horn of Plenty” and one of the tunes was based on “Take the A Train”. There was a long unison line, in octaves, that I thought would be interesting to play on bass trombone, an octave lower than what I was playing on tenor. I thought it gave the chart a little bit of a “Duke” voicing. So that meant that I played my solo on bass, too. I think that’s the first recorded jazz solo I ever played on bass trombone. Despite this, I still hadn’t come to grips with really playing jazz on the bass trombone.
I first met Mike when I went back to Eastman to do a little concert and clinic thing. I think it was about 10 years after I graduated from there.
Fast forward to the International Trombone Festival in Urbana, Ill. in 1997. Up to this time, I had only been making half-hearted attempts at playing jazz bass trombone and had never thought to do as much as a whole set on it alone. Then I looked at the list of the other players on the final night concert. I’m sure you and most of the readers know how most of the ITF events schedule the jazz component. It’s usually everybody plays one very long concert on the next to the last night. Whether this is a good idea or not, I’ll leave for another time, but there I was, looking at this list of great tenor trombone players like Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Tony Garcia, and a couple of other good players who have escaped my memory. I figured that most of the notes above middle “C” would be taken, so I decided that I would play only bass trombone. The rhythm section and I got through our little selection of tunes. I was amazed at the response. But I guess it was unusual to get up there and play something resembling jazz on bass trombone.
I remember Mike Davis talking to me backstage and suggesting that we do an album together. So the idea that became “Bonetown” came from that conversation. A while later, when Mike finished writing the music for the album and sent me the charts to look at, I knew it was going to be a challenge not only from the improv stand point, but just being able to get through some of the written parts would be tough. The duet “Trombone Institute of Technology” had a few passages in it that seemed fairly unplayable to me. And I must say that every time we’ve performed that piece, I’ve felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails. But over all, I’m very glad that Mike pushed me to explore some different harmonic territory than I probably would have done on my own. Mike is a great player and one of the easiest people I’ve ever played with. I hope there will be more opportunities to do some things with him.
I first met Massimo (Max) when he brought his family over to L.A. around Christmastime a few years ago. I invited him to play with the L.A. trombone guys for the Christmas events that we do every year. A couple of years later, I was asked to play at the ITF in Aarhus, Denmark. When Max found out about me being in Europe, he organized a quintet CD project and a concert in Rome. So, it was a great way for my wife and me to see Rome for the first time and get to know Max and his family. It was difficult for me to pull myself away from the artwork and the ancient buildings and the margarita pizza and the red wine . . .
This was my first time playing with another jazz bass trombone player. Max has a lot of the same interests as I do. He likes to play different instruments, like the various trombones and tuba. It was very easy to get onto the same wavelength, musically. Most of the tunes were his originals. The other tune was based on the solo I played on the Don Menza Sextet album. I soon discovered that it’s much harder to replay a solo, especially as an ensemble, than to play it in the first place.
I’ve seen a couple of my solos written out over the years and my first impulse is “Oh no, I couldn’t have played that.” I think what we did worked pretty well.
I’m sure I’ll be seeing and playing with Massimo sometime in the near future. At least, I hope so.
I don’t know how to end this . . . so . . .
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