Forget about Alex being on the Paul McCartney’s video recording, “My Very Good
Friend, the (trombone-playing) Milkman”.
Forget about him playing trombone for Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson before becoming a Los Angeles recording studio standout.
Don’t even think about principal trombone in the Long Beach Symphony, or for the Oscars, or even as a guest soloist for the International Trombone Association.
Just imagine, for a moment, that you are a record producer about to be stranded on a desert island for ten years, and can take only one trombonist with you; it might have to be Alex Iles.
Alex is a man of breathtaking versatility and significant depth, who gives one the impression of a gifted tinkerer. If the trombone were the tone color equivalent of the color blue, then it seems that while many other trombonists seem to be perfecting a single blue, Alex seems to cultivate a every conceivable blue. As a result, he is always in style…”1385″ tm is proud as a peacock to present master trombonist Alex Iles, enjoy!
1. Take us through the rehearsals and performance/recording of one of the many awards shows. How would you describe this experience to someone outside a major music center?
This varies from show to show, and the calls for these kinds of awards shows generally go out a few months in advance. The orchestra usually has a few sessions booked a week or two before the show airs live where they will prerecord much of the music in one or two six-hour-sessions. The music often includes opening titles, end credits, and a few other show numbers to be used at the discretion of the show producers, directors, and choreographers.
The orchestra also rehearses and records the main themes of the nominated films or shows. For most awards shows, the orchestra plays those tunes live for the winner as they come onstage. During the show the director will eventually cue the conductor over the headphones to cue the orchestra to play when the clock (clearly in view of the award recipient) runs out. Hopefully, this keeps the show from running too long. But the Oscars run notoriously long, even with the speeches getting cut off.
There are some tech and dress rehearsals a few days prior to and on the day of the show. These rehearsals are not as much for the orchestra but for the directors and camera crew to get a sense of how everything runs in order. Depending on how much the directors use the prerecords, the orchestra may not even play live on the night of the show at all. The Oscar orchestra schedule and responsibilities vary a bit year to year, largely depending also on what the host/MC wants to do. The one year I got to play on the Oscars, Hugh Jackman, a great singer and all around entertainer, was co-host t, so he was a natural to sing live with the orchestra and did a great job performing with his co-host, actress, Anne Hathaway.
2. Jazz and classical both? Solo and ensemble both? How do you keep on top of four to six different quadrants of playing at a high level. Where is home base?
When people sometimes ask me, “What kind of music do play more of on recording sessions? Jazz or classical?” My initial snide response is usually…”Neither!”
The fact is, the musical demands can be anything on any given day and is often totally the opposite of what the call goes out for originally. I’ve played orchestral bass trombone on sessions I’ve been told ahead of time was going to be mostly small group 30’s era swing era jazz!
Also, within each so called “genre” there can be differences that players have to listen for and learn.
For instance, 20’s and 30’s Kansas City swing feel and style differs in certain significant ways from the music of the 40’s and early 50’s Swing Era Pre bebop. The phrasing is different, the improvisational language can be different and the time and rhythmic feel evolved quite a bit in those 20 years.
Many films scored for giant orchestras these days contain lots of intense ostinato bass lines and rhythmic grooves. These scores demand basically a symphonic sound, but they frequently require the players to be able to play rock, funk, hip hop, or swinging syncopated figures with the right kind of groove. It is definitely not a style of music which relates too closely to Brahms, Bruckner or Mahler…or Basie, or Kenton!
Trombone Alert at 1:40…
I also think that it’s important to discover and address the specific kinds of musical and technical demands beyond any label people attach to it. For instance, something labeled “classical” like Stravinsky’s “Firebird” or “Rite of Spring” requires certain specific musical skill sets (metric changes, rhythms across bar lines, extreme articulation and dynamics, etc) that many players first encounter in jazz big band music. On the other hand, playing a pretty jazz melody might make be easier to play by someone who has been regularly playing legato etudes and melodies in various registers rather than having spent that time blowing through “Stablemates” and “Giant Steps”!
Now, I am all for with delving 100c/o into exploring and growing your skills as an improviser, but again; playing a pretty melody with a great sound requires honing different skill sets.
As freelance trombonists, we also have to be flexible and comfortable playing different instruments depending on the kind of music placed in front of us as well. Tenor trombonists in the freelance world tend to have to stay proficient and prepared on small bore tenor, large bore tenor and bass trombone. And we often receive little or no warning which it will be. Many freelancers sometimes take calls for euphonium and even tuba. I also play alto for certain pieces in the repertoire that come up a few times a year.
A big part of my musical life and livelihood is performing live, outside the studio. I love my positions in the Long Beach Symphony (principal) and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (2nd trombone). In a given year, I will play a lot of shows, concerts, and club gigs. I also love playing chamber music, salsa, trad jazz and new music. I like to prepare and perform recitals and guest solo concert throughout the year. These performances keep me honest and motivated to continue to explore and grow as a musician.
Many musicians become motivated solely by the lure of a paycheck or measure their success primarily in terms of their financial success or failure. I have always felt any work I get called for is largely a gift and if I don’t push myself a bit and get out to play music in creative outlets on my own, and in collaboration with the fantastic individual musicians I’ve come to know over the years, i have a hard time honestly calling myself a musician. I love getting paid to play, but I also find it is necessary getting out there and playing music for music’s sake!
Big musical challenges can come up with little warning. And you can only prepare so much for any given day. I think the key is to have a healthy exposure to a lot of different music on your radar starting out early and continuing throughout your life to keep expanding your musical awareness.
My students are great at keeping me informed of new stuff they’re checking out, but I also try to search out new and different music as much as I can. Some days, I think I have always enjoyed listening as much as playing music myself.
I have never listened for purely professional reasons or because someone told me I should. As a young trombone I realized that in order to maximize my chances to just get to play with anyone at all, I wanted to hear and understand every situation one might hear/see a trombone. I loved discovering and investigating all that music and continue to love hearing new music, composers and performers.
Developing this kind of flexibility just for basic survival turned out to be a critical component leading up to what I wound up doing for a living. I have been frustrated at times when I might only be performing at 75 or 80% of my best in any one genre, but for me, that has to be ok. What I do is sometimes like a musical decathlon!
3. How did the Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson experiences differ? From the leaders personalities, to musical priorities and life on the road.
When I was a teenager, both these bands were my top two “dream bands”. They were the bands I went out to see and hear the most whenever they came through town. Both bands played incredible arrangements at a high level of precision and with plenty of world class musicianship on display. I followed the personnel lists on their recordings and from newspaper articles the way some people followed their favorite sports teams. I idolized their trombone sections and soloists. To be invited to play and tour with these two influential bands was a great honor.
There were differences and similarities, for sure.
Both bands were made up of amazing players and arrangers. Each of the band’s tours took them to many of the same venues. Life on the road, traveling by bus everywhere could be challenging especially if folks weren’t feeling very social with each other or feeling physically sick.
Maynard was an incredibly positive person, especially as a leader. His ensemble had to sound tight and polished but he also encouraged us by making sure each of us had solo space and felt a part of the “show”. His fans represented a diverse demographic. Some people in the audience were not yet fully realized jazz fans. But they loved Maynard because he and his music were exciting, accessible and often resembled the kind of pop music they were accustomed to.
But this was really kind of a beautiful con job on some level because Maynard was subtly delivering a healthy dose of jazz education in every performance. Instrumental soloists were always introduced and featured. He performed many works by legendary jazz composers. And he often pulled out classic arrangements from his own repertoire.
I was invited to join Maynard’s band in 1985 with the departure of the fantastic trombonist/composer/arranger Steve Weist who was going back to UNT at the time to finish his master’s degree and start his illustrious additional career as an outstanding music educator
I learned many valuable lessons in my 2 years with Maynard. Probably the most important lesson of all was that we were all expected to deliver a highly energized performance of basically the same repertoire every single night. There were no excuses!! That is a lesson you really can’t get in school!!
Playing with Maynard was also my first real “name” professional experience. That gave me some professional “street cred” when I returned to my freelance life back in Los Angeles .
Woody Herman heard me play with Maynard at the long defunct Donte’s jazz club in LA and I suppose that might have put my name in his head when his lead/solo trombonist John Fedchock decided to depart after being such a critical member of the band for almost 8 years, playing incredible solos and also serving as Woody’s primary arranger and musical director.
I feel so lucky to have toured with both these bands. Woody’s band was a bit purer and perhaps a more authentic jazz band approach with the music they played. There was a respect for the past, but Woody never wanted his band to be solely in existence for “nostalgic” reasons. He idolized Duke Ellington and, in many ways I think he saw his band as having to always grow and evolve to survive. It was that way up to and after Woody passed away in 1987 when I joined the band. Woody was too ill to tour and passed away while I was on the band. Long time saxophonist Frank Tiberi led during my year with the band. He was very positive and encouraging as well. Besides concerts, club dates, and festivals, Woody’s band played a lot of dances. I loved these gigs because Frank would call some of the great classic big band tunes that made Woody’s band famous. “The Good Earth”, “Bijou”, “Woodchoppers Ball”, and all the rest. That was best danceband book ever, especially for trombone players. There were so many great parts and solos to play.
Again, the quality of musicianship in that band was inspiring every night.
4. What was it like to play for Sir Paul McCartney? Personally, musically, and historically?
I was called a couple of days before Paul McCartney recorded a live webcast to promote the release of a lovely CD called Kisses on the Bottom consisting of standard and show tunes that he had grown up hearing and had inspired him growing up in Liverpool.
My friend, colleague and fantastic jazz musician, Ira Nepus, played all the wonderful jazz trombone solos on that recording. For the webcast, the producers were not originally going to play any of the tunes with trombone solos, but then changed their minds decided to add one of them into the mix at the last minute. Unfortunately for Ira, he was already committed to another job out of town. So, he had to decline the offer and the call went out to me to cover for him!
It was a thrill to be there in the same room as Paul McCartney, Dianna Krall, Joe Walsh, John Pizzarelli, John Clayton and the rest of the amazing band!! Paul was very gracious and trusted all the musicians so much. When he walked into the studio, he walked right up to me and extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Paul.” I was paralyzed, of course and just shook his hand and said, “Yes, I know.” Dianna Krall, another hero of mine, later told me in a hushed tone, “I have known Paul and worked with him for a few months on this project and I turn into a giddy 13 year old every time I see him!” I played on a cool old Fats Waller tune, “My Very Good Friend the Milkman”. It was a thrill beyond words to get to play on this. Another example in my career of getting to do something as a substitute!!
5. What is your secret to a good legato?
If and when I figure out a “secret” I will let you know!! But seriously, I think it first requires a strong mental image of how you want it to sound. It’s not enough to just think of legato and simply “connected” you want to have a sound picture in your head of a great legato and emulate that. It’s an exercise in listening first and foremost. Great trombonists in multiple genres have “cracked the code”. Tommy Dorsey, Joe Alessi, Urbie Green, Jim Markey, Bill Watrous, Dick Nash, Lloyd Ulyate, etc etc. But I also have been inspired by singers like Dietrich FischerDieskau, Dawn Upshaw, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rankin and Nat King Cole.
For me, legato is a way trombonists apply to creating phrasing and musical line, not only the mechanics of connecting one note to the next.
With that idea in mind, I think it is good to start learning how to articulate on the trombone by using no articulation at all. Keyed and valve instruments do this, why shouldn’t trombonists? Sure, there are lots of unmusical glisses when we move between notes on the same partial without articulation, but by doing this little exercise, a player can develop a model for an airstream we can use effectively with the tongue.
Gliss your way through a Bordogni etude or other legato melody. You can also focus on all the components besides your tongue; air, resonance, natural slurs, slide movement. What I suggest next is to gradually introduce the articulation JUST ENOUGH to get rid of the glisses. This way you can feel free to first play something the way you sing it or hear other people sing it.
It is also to “loop” between two notes on the same partial, say Bb and Ab and play back and forth, experimenting with where you place your tongue behind your teeth and gums, and perhaps what consonant sound you’re using [dah, tah and the degrees between].
I like using natural slurs whenever possible too. I strive to match my natural slur and legato tongue articulation so that they are interchangable sounding…in theory at least!!
6. Who have your main jazz teachers been, and what did each emphasize?
I would say my primary jazz teachers were JJ Johnson, Carl Fontana, Hank Mobley, Jack Teagarden, and Wayne Henderson. In other words, as Jamey Aebersold said, “All your answers to all your questions are sitting in your record collection!” I am 7580% self taught. In some ways I regret not having really paid my dues studying one on one with a master teacher for a few years. But that said, there have been some incredible lessons I have learned. I attended the Aspen School of Music a couple summers when I was in college and took an improv class with Vince Maggio from the University of Miami. Great teacher. We sat in a circle and each played a chorus on whatever tune we were working on and he would give incredible critiques, playing back whole segments of our solos on the piano and giving alternatives for how to make our ideas more coherent.
I also highly recommend the books by Mark Levine, “The Jazz Piano Book” and the “The Jazz Theory Book”. These books are not “academic” like so many jazz texts which only offer too many alternatives. They are hands on and related directly to the music. He will give a pattern or harmonic or melodic concept that real players [Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Erroll Garner, etc] actually used to navigate a certain harmonic challenge or for a particular effect.
7. Which players and singers have you found so beautiful, that you have sought to emulate them to the degree that you hear aspects of their in your music making?
The jazz trombonists who have and continue to influence me are from a pretty wide variety of
idioms and eras…Jack Teagarden, JJ Johnson, Tommy Dorsey, James Pankow, Bill Harris, Urbie Green, Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino, John Allred, Bill Watrous, Elliot Mason, Lawrence Brown, Al Grey, Marshall Gilkes,, Jim Fedchock, Jim Pugh, Albert Manglesdorff, Wayne Henderson, Bob Havens and several of my LA colleagues, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Bill Reichenbach and Scott Whitfield.
In the “classical” and orchestral world…Ralph Sauer, Joe Alessi, Michael Mulcahy, Paul Pollard, Christian Lindberg, Michel Biquet, Stefan Schulz, Alain Trudel, Mark Markey, Charlie Vernon and Jay Friedman.
In the freelance and studio world of playing, I have grown up surrounded by one of the greatest collection of talented and adaptable trombonists on the planet…
Dick Nash, George Roberts, Lloyd Ulyate, Joe Howard, Hoyt Bohannon, Tommy Pederson, Charlie Loper, Bill Booth, Bill Reichenbach, Lew McCreary, Alan Kaplan, Steve Holtman, Andy Martin, Nick Lane. The list is expanding all the time too with all the great up and coming players turning up here!
If I were to pick one trombonist who has inspired more than any other, that would have to be Dick Nash. He possesses the sound, musicality, phrasing, time, sensitivity, flexibility, technique, range, intonation, creativity and overall musicianship that appears in one person at one time maybe one in a generation. He is just as inspiring as a person as he is as a player
8. What are your most memorable sound recording sessions? Any stories involving composer/conductors or fellow musicians?
Merely showing up for what appears to be an innocent work call, can put you in some pretty musically rewarding or just whacky situations.
Recording the sound track for Star Wars VII with John Williams was a real highlight for all the musicians who were there. It was so musically rewarding and a laser beam-like reminder to all of us of the things that inspired us to play a musical instrument in the first place! It was an honor to be asked and a thrill for all of us to live out our childhood fantasy.
I have performed on stage and in the studio with so many idols…Wayne Shorter, Pavarotti, Barbara Streisand, John Williams, etc. I really can’t believe I get to do this for a living.
Sometimes the actors show up to sessions. A few times they conduct for a photo op. Sly Stallone, Chris Pine and Tom Cruise actually did a pretty good job conducting. Tom Cruise conducted a pretty decent 5/4 pattern on the theme from “Mission: Impossible!”
Sometimes we record music that is supposed to sound like a middle school band or a slightly drunk party band. That can actually be tough in a nice studio with expensive mics and great engineers. Andy Martin and I had to mimic a pair of trombonists in on camera amateur brass band. I wound up playing left handed and out of the side of my mouth!!
9. Please comment on your Disney connection.
Disney has cast a huge umbrella over many of us. Growing up in Southern California, I spent several days of the year at Disneyland and there were always outstanding musicians performing in the “atmosphere” groups and the Disneyland Band, a recreation of a turn of the century town band. There would also be many visiting groups playing dance or concert music all summer at the Plaza Gardens, an outdoor stage. A group of us would pile into a car with my dad driving just to hear the band playing that night. We would all sit in amazement as we sat on the dance floor being treated to some incredible concert performances by bands like Count Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich.
When I was about 13, I heard a band of young players playing high energy choreographed music with great spirit and enthusiasm. I went to hear every one of their sets. This was the Disneyland All American College Band, a 12 week program to introduce select college musicians to the music business and provide a special type of entertainment that only a 20 piece band of great college musicians can create. Five years later I auditioned and was selected to play lead bone with the 1980 incarnation of the band.
Many alums of the AACB will attest that their summer in the band “changed their lives”. It truly did for me on so many levels.
I started playing jazz more seriously, learned what it was like to work as a musician, began developing a lead trombone concept, made lifetime friendships, expanded my overall playing abilities and began a connection to Disney which helped me establish and grow as a freelance career.
It was my friend from the band, trombonist, Dan Levine who called me, suggesting that I send a demo recording to Maynard’s band.
I started working and subbing in various groups at Disneyland after I got off the road. Many of the players I work with and play music with on a regular basis worked full time or seasonally at Disneyland. Wayne Bergeron, Andy Martin, Charlie Morillas, Eric Marienthal, Phil Keen, and Joey Sellers, John Allred have worked at “The Park” in their formative years.
I have mostly worked as an educational consultant the past ten years at the park, conducting clinics and workshops, including appearing at The Plaza Gardens stage as a guest soloist with All American College Band. That is always a thrill on multiple levels!!
c. 2016 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Images Courtesy of Alex Iles