Certain great writers—Hemingway, obviously, Whitney Balliett and Lester Bangs in my own backyard—were meant to be admired, not emulated; they’re lousy influences because their idiosyncrasies resist imitation while inviting it. Something similar is true in jazz, where the stumbling block will more likely be insufficient technique
than borrowed tics. Sarah Vaughan’s swoops and operatic colorations, for example, are off-limits (or should be) to anyone lacking her vocal magnitude and harmonic ear (which describes most mortals). A more earthbound example would be J.J. Johnson, an untouchable virtuoso who adapted Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to trombone in the late 1940s and sent a generation-plus of post-bop trombonists on a wild-goose chase.
A maverick among Johnson’s immediate contemporaries for not even trying to catch up with him was Bob Brookmeyer. To judge from a handful of recent CDs and an inspired performance by his New Art Orchestra in the Imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton New York during last month’s convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators, Brookmeyer is still going his own way at 74. His independence started with his valve trombone, practically a different instrument from J.J.’s slide and one rarely employed in jazz before or since (one of its few earlier proponents was the Ellingtonian Juan Tizol). Along with yielding a brighter, more piquant sound, valves are supposed to allow a trombonist greater ease of articulation, turning the horn into an oversized trumpet. But jazz musicians have always exercised mind over matter in mastering their instruments, and a classical listener hearing recordings might be fooled into thinking that it was Brookmeyer and not Johnson who was extending a slide—Brookmeyer’s tone is muffled and more rumpled than Johnson’s, and he retains more of the traditional trombone vocabulary, most notably the broad smears that bebop’s lickety-split tempos pretty much ruled out.
Last year’s Island (Artists House), a quintet date co-led by Kenny Wheeler, a lyrical trumpeter just a month younger than Brookmeyer, and featuring compositions by both, owed much of its appeal to the sense of urgency conveyed by the two horns playing at moderate speeds. But the new reissue Bob Brookmeyer (Mosaic Select), featuring five of his LPs from the 1950s on three CDs, shows he was in no hurry even as a young man. Intimate surroundings suit Brookmeyer: The brand-new One Night in Vermont (Planet Arts), featuring duets with pianist Ted Rosenthal (a former student of his), is all familiar standards, and Brookmeyer’s improvisations on them are so melodically winning—and his harmonic variations so keen—it’s tough to tell where Gershwin and Porter leave off.
Despite a few challenging charts for Gerry Mulligan’s big band and Thad Jones-Mel Lewis in the 1960s, Brookmeyer didn’t fully emerge as a composer until assuming the role of music director for Lewis’s band following Jones’s departure in 1979. His current writing for the Lübeck, Germany-based New Art Orchestra approaches genius. Brookmeyer the composer is Mr. Hyde to the improviser’s Dr. Jekyll. The titles alone of Kansas City Revisited and Traditionalism Revisited, two of the dandy LPs from the late 1950s rescued from oblivion on the Mosaic collection, reveal that Brookmeyer was never a bopper. But whereas his solos are models of artful simplicity, his writing for orchestra is muscular and demonically complex—more Bartók than Basie, though unmistakably jazz. Along with four pieces showcasing guest Till Brönner, a young German trumpeter with a lovely tone and a commanding sound, Get Well Soon, the NAO’s latest, includes three others that qualify as imaginative pieces for orchestra, not just themes for a string of soloists to blow on. The loveliest of these—and the moodiest, though all of them are moody—is “Elegy,” written for the late Earl Brown, a contemporary of John Cage and Morton Feldman with whom Brookmeyer studied in the 1980s. As perfect in its own way as anything by Gil Evans, it manages to evoke Brown’s modernism without falling into the trap of imitating his methods.
Weather prevented me from making it to the Village Vanguard last week for what was billed as “a battle of the bands” between the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the NAO. (Some battle—so many members of the VJO once studied with Brookmeyer that for him to win would have been like eating his young.) But I did hear parts of overlapping sets by both ensembles at the IAJE. Joined by Slide Hampton on a rousing “Frame for the Blues,” the VJO was in typical fine form. And Brookmeyer and the NAO were breathtaking. As on Get Well Soon, the high point was the swirl of oboe and low brass and John Hollenbeck’s quietly insistent wire brushes on “Elegy.” You’ve heard the one about hearing a pin drop? That pin could have been Hollenbeck’s cymbals. It’s the sort of piece that demands complete attention, and that it got nothing less in a ballroom crammed with glad-handing educators and record company executives attests to its power.