How To Develop an Interior Life

George Lewis
The Solo Trombone Record
Sackville : 1976

“My old joke is that saxophonists get all the girls, trumpeters make all the money, and trombonists develop an interior life.” -Bob Brookmeyer

So. Solo trombone? Even though these tracks are exactly as advertised, the music is surprisingly full, satisfying, and even fun. Gary Giddins has dubbed it “a tour de force, where Lewis accomodates each improvisational style with a different tone.”

A mere twenty-four years old when he cut this, the trombone prodigy was nevertheless throwing down a gauntlet. Or throwing down, anyway. If his work with Braxton from earlier in 1976 hadn’t already done the trick (one example), here Lewis proves that he’s one of the instrument’s true masters. Among other things, The Solo Trombone Record is one of the great – and underrated – solo recitals in jazz. Â

“Phenomenology” highlights some R&B riffing, great rhythmic vamps that build to a point where Lewis blurts and splatters brass from the speakers, zig-zagging helium tones. This piece rocks; when he reaches for the plunger halfway through, it’s as if he’s fitting the horn with a flange.Â

Lewis’ hushed, lovely take on “Lush Life” reveals a wisdom and weariness beyond his years, and calls to mind Coltrane’s great performance of the ballad from some twenty years before. It’s a fairly straight rendition, and highlights the trombonist’s wonderful way with melody, as well as his swinging sense of time.

Each tune on the album has its own sound. The centerpiece is the long first track, “Toneburst,” a twenty-minute song with three overdubbed trombones interacting with each other – not to be missed. If you like the tracks above, you’ll dig the rest: copies of the album may be available at DMG

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Lewis later received a MacArthur “genius” grant for his work as a composer, improviser, and pioneer in the use of electronics in music. His standout work to date, Homage to Charles Parker, shows off a canny and haunting combination of electronic atmospheres (a la Brian Eno) and jazz improv. But the magic on the tracks above comes strictly outta the mouthpiece.

D:O saw him perform a duet several years back with Muhal Richard Abrams and we were totally poleaxed. Lewis played trombone and pulled out all the stops. He seemed to have an endless bag of tricks, including deep resonate tones, dog-whistle squeaks, talking wah-wah vibrations, and much more. His architectonic soloing was a marvel but the pleasures were far from intellectual. The spit hitting the floor seemed to have musical properties. Lewis played the entire show with a fire in his belly, like Dolphy with a plunger.

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Those seeking more from Lewis the academic can turn to his paper “Too Many Notes: Computers, Complexity, and Culture in Voyager,” which appeared in the music journal Leonardo in 2000. Skip down to the afterword for Lewis’ take on the composition/improvisation divide.Â

To close, here is a long Lewis quote drawn from an interview conducted by guitarist Jeff Parker, published in BOMB in 05, and reposted at Parker’s myspace page. It touches on a number of Lewis themes, and ends with him receiving something of a comeuppance:

I was 19 years old when I met the people in the AACM. It was just dumb luck that I literally stumbled upon Muhal, Pete Cosey, people like that. I was walking on 87th and Bennett and I saw a band rehearsing in this child center, I poked my head in, and that was how I met them. They had their Monday night band, and then after the initial period of Who is this guy? they let me play. It seemed that the AACM was a place where if you didnt have a clue, you were encouraged to develop one. If you had an idea, no matter how half-baked it was, they would try to realize it, and they would sort of demand that you create your own concepts, your own compositions. They had their Saturday classes, and people were being encouraged to compose. They never discussed improvisation; the only classes were in composition. So to bring this whole thing full circle, this whole business of my approaching things compositionally came from the AACM, because it was assumed that you were there because you wanted to be a composer, and by being a composer you were manifesting a kind of alternative model of what African-American creativity would be about. People like Fred Anderson, Lester Lashley and Roscoe were constantly questioning you about what you were trying to do. I remember riding in a van with Braxton, and he turns to me and says, George, what is your music like? So I gave him what I thought was a pretty cool answer, and he said, you know, George, that kind of sounds like bullshit to me. (laughter) I mean, he was right, you know?

Category George Lewis

4 Responses to How To Develop an Interior Life

  1. For more of Lewis’s writing, there’s the excellent “Experimental music in black and white”.

  2. hey mwanji – thanks for the link! that’s a wonderful piece.

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