Swoop, Slide, Swing and Stride with Mark McGrain

Mark McGrain 2

Like a physician discussing anatomy, trombonist Mark McGrain knows every sinew, muscle and fiber of his instrument. Like a lover, he knows how to coax its precious – and brash, kick-ass – qualities. The result is an emotional, muscle-memory mélange that gives his horn its fully realized personality.

With his band Plunge, Mark has several CDs under his belt, the most recent from 2015, called “IN for the OUT.”

He is about to release (2/12/18) the new solo album titled “Love, Time, and Divination” which features the outstanding vocalist John Boutte; pianist Matt Lemmler; and bassist James Singleton. “As Time Goes By” serves up the shimmery, back in stride days of Nawlins, and the get-up-and-dance vibe of “Hola Brah” brings great articulation from Mark. His thoughtful approach on the initially-energetic “I Can’t Get Started” has a soothing and affectionate quality. And perhaps nowhere is his sound as voice-like as on the sultry “3:27 a.m.”

“Love, Time, and Divination” is a fragrant bouquet of songs, some old, some new, that highlights his chops and shows brilliance in his choice of collaborators.

When did you first pick up trombone and why?

We had an old Conn cornet in the house that my dad had played in high school. He began teaching me how to play it when I was five. When I was old enough to play in the school band (5th grade) I switched to the baritone horn, mostly because they needed more low brass in the band and I was recognized as a quick musical learner. I switched to trombone in junior high because, along with trumpet, it was a common instrument in jazz and rock horn sections. I immediately fell in love with improvisational jazz when I first heard my dad’s Louis Armstrong records. I marveled at how all this music sounded as if were being made up right on the spot. 

At that time, I had no knowledge of music theory and assumed that the music was truly spontaneous ensemble playing. Big bands were still active, and horn-driven bands like Ten Wheel Drive, Sons of Champlin and Blood Sweat & Tears were about to break onto the scene. Trombone was still a logical instrumental choice if one hoped to make a living as a musician. 

My private trombone teacher, the bass trombonist in our philharmonic, owned his house and drove a Porsche; my public high school band teacher drove an Alfa Romero; and one of my best friend’s dad was the music teacher at another local high school, who was raising four or five kids and making the mortgage on a very nice home in the suburbs of Rochester NY. Trombone was actually a very sane choice at the time. 

Favorite trombonists and jazz artists?

The first trombonists I heard were recordings of Trummy Young with Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden. When I heard J.J. I immediately turned to his style of playing; clean, articulate and melodically eloquent; I also dug Curtis Fuller a lot during those years. Thing was, I was head-over-heels for any and all that was Miles, but Miles rarely included trombone so, musically, I came up under the sonic wing of Wayne Shorter more than any one trombonist. 

When Urbie Green came out with “Sidewinder” I thought, “cool, a trombonist’s answer to Herb Alpert,” referring to accessible melodies being performed by great instrumental artists. 

It would not be long before I found myself under the wide brim of Chuck Mangione, another master of twisting melodic familiarity. Chuck directed a high school big band that I played second trombone (jazz chair) in. He’s a master of adapting familiar harmonic devices with memorable melodies. He has a very adventurous ear and wry sense of compositional wit. My reading suffered from an undiagnosed case of ADD thus informing me that I best connect improvisationally as best I could. 

I spent countless hours playing to records and radio—any style—in the dark with eyes closed. I knew early on that I had a memory and distraction problem so I began working on compensating by connecting my mind’s voice with my instrument. I figured that, because I would likely not remember a predetermined part, I had best be able to intuitively play the notes I hear in my head immediately on my instrument.  

What tips do you give beginners to feel the right place for the note?

You now know that I was entranced by J.J.’s articulative style. It takes tremendous practice to perfect the ability to extend one’s arm/hand/fingers to exactly the distance out from the mouthpiece, for every note in our equal temperament system while not exhibiting any glissando. 

It’s an unattainable goal really but it’s a goal that can drive a practice regime. To my students, I refer to it as “target practice.” One establishes a “home” pitch/position, then practices staccato attacks at a chosen pitch or interval. With an electronic tuner, the trombonist establishes the “home” pitch then closes his/her eyes and as quickly as possible “throws” or “snaps” the slide to where they believe the pitch will sound in-tune; then articulate the note, center it and only then, open his eyes and check the intonation. Repeating this over and over again increases the number of intonational bull’s eyes! 

What do you most like about the sound?

If I could remember the lyrics I wouldn’t need the trombone. The trombone replicates my vocal range; I’m a baritone. It’s the vocal quality of the trombone’s sound that I adore—and it’s extreme sonic and emotional range.

What themes inspired you on your CD “Love, Time, and Divination”?

This project began as an homage to my parents (now in their 90s). It’s common for musicians to be repeatedly asked by elder family members to play some of their favorite songs from their past. 

My dad’s absolute favorite movie is Casa Blanca, hence the inclusion of “As Time Goes By.” He also was a huge Bunny Berigan fan and carried an extended 78 rpm disc in his foot-locker throughout Europe during his stint as a navigator/bombardier in WWII. 

As I pondered and learned these songs from the 1930s and ’40s I also began composing new material with some of the same harmonic/melodic devices. John Boutté, whom I regularly work with, asked me a while back to do an arrangement of David Gilmour’s Pink Floyd anthem “On The Turning Away.” To me, all these different themes seemed congruous and worthy of being recorded and presented together as an album. 

What are some of the highlights of this CD?

Esplanade Studios, where we recorded this record, is a converted brick church cathedral; the acoustics are large and beautiful. I’ve recorded several projects there: Plunge’s 2015 release “IN for the OUT” was recorded in that room. Engineers Misha Kachkachishvili and John Fischbach possess New Orleans’ most refined ears. The house Steinway is also Matt’s favorite in town and their mic collection and wisdom to use it is sublime.

What are your top favorite tracks?

With regard to my original compositions, I can’t play favorites. It’s like with children, they each have their attributes and character and I love them all equally but for different reasons. 

As far as the covers are concerned, “I Thought About You” best represents the sound I was originally striving for; simple, spontaneous, elegant and arranged slightly differently than is commonly heard PLUS I got to play in a cup mute which gives the horn a sweet, light sound. That was a one-take deal. John walked in, we called it up, counted it down, and knocked it out. It just swings beautifully, so groovy and elegant. My happy place for sure.  

The CD has a heavy, New Orleans stride vibe. How is it different from your past recordings?

I specifically wanted a traditionally rooted piano sound and that’s a big part of why I called on Matt. The left-hand stride and right-hand rolls are trademarks of New Orleans’ piano style and Matt uses those familiar clichés lavishly but tastefully. It was important to me that this record sounds immediately like New Orleans and I think it does both in referencing the mid-20th century material and also in presenting the newer compositions as well. 

Unusual harmonizing between trombone and vocalist on “It All Comes Down to Love” – compositionally, what were you trying to achieve?  

“It All Comes Down To Love” is a relatively simple melody supported by a slightly unusual harmony. This is a very instrumental-sounding melody covering a broad range. It’s very difficult to sing. 

The role of the trombone is simply to support the vocals and create depth in the form.  The harmony determined which pitches would be left for the trombone; which pitches would depict the harmonic color and cadence while supporting the melody. I try to think “cello” in situations like this: “How would I voice a cello here?” The trick with a good obbligato is that it stays out of the melody’s way, and it supports the melody in a lush and intriguing manner.

Do you like an obvious glissando or do you shy away from it?

So again we arrive at the glissando. 

The glissando embraces and exemplifies the trombone’s greatest attribute, absolute micro-tonality. Without glissando the trombone would be just another trumpet. 

That being said, eliminating glissando at the moment of note change is the most daunting technique on a slide instrument to achieve. Playing legato on a trombone is extremely difficult. I like to include glissando in my voice but not always, which means I must lean heavily on perfecting a non-glissando, legato transition between notes.  If I can achieve that then I’m free to use glissandi at will. 

“I Can’t Get Started” has schmaltz. Do you enjoy these expressive qualities?  

“I Can’t Get Started,” “As Time Goes By” and “I Thought About You” all come from the era where “schmaltz” had its role to play. Schmaltz best renders the era in which the songs were originally popular. 

As I mentioned before, the trombone has tremendous depth of sound. By altering the shape of my throat, mouth cavity, where I place my tongue, how I hold my jaw. . .all these contribute to a wide range of timbral effects. Add multi-phonics, circular breathing, and muting possibilities and the pallet gets even broader. 

The focus of this project was to strive for as vocal a sound quality as I could muster on the melodies—as if they were being sung—and then finding more of an instrumental sound for the solos and backgrounds. 

What was the best thing about being on the faculty at Berklee?

Simple, I love to teach.

Why did you write the book Music Notation?

At the time of my appointment, the general state of music manuscript among students, even graduating students, was atrocious, if not completely illegible. The music may have been good but the scores and parts were a mess. 

We looked for a text that we could use for a standardized entry-level notation course but couldn’t find one that fit our needs. I was chosen to write a text and design a curriculum. I’m pleased that people still find it helpful. It continues to be a strong seller more than 30 years after it was first published.

Among the endless number of venues in New Orleans, what are some of your favorites?  

There are indeed almost countless live music venues in, and around, New Orleans. For jazz, surprising as it may seem, that number drops to a much smaller circle of venues. I may play a private party in a home uptown, then a reception at the convention center, a club date at night, then a wedding and a festival on the weekend. 

Of all those gigs only a few are open to the public or even at established venues. I play regularly at d.b.a. on Frenchmen St. with John Boutté. For me, d.b.a. is kind of the downtown version of the Maple Leaf. I live downtown so being able to walk to a gig is a big plus! 

When I’m looking to present a new project like the duo/trio that we recorded “Love, Time, and Divination” with, I try to book a date at Snug Harbor (also on Frenchmen St.). Snug is a great listening room where world-class touring and local jazz artists perform nightly. We’ll be celebrating the release of the new album at Snug Harbor on Thursday, February 15th (8 p.m. and 10 p.m.). 

Does the city live up to its musical heritage? 

New Orleans’ musical heritage is ongoing, continuing, evolving. If you mean to ask whether music coming out of New Orleans today compares to the virtuosity of the early 20th century New Orleans musicians, I’d have to say yes—and in fact, is built upon it. 

Players like trumpeters Wendall Brunious and Leroy Jones are of lineage directly connected to the generation who created the art form. They carry with them the personal experiences they had with these ancestors during their childhood and ply them today in a modernized manner. 

My dear friend sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, founding member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, is another example. Kirk’s father, trombonist Waldren “Frog” Joseph, traveled the world representing his home town and beloved music. Now Kirk travels with his world-renowned brass band, continually seeking new ways to present the heart and soul that embraces New Orleans music. 

New Orleans is not the same community it was prior to the Federal Flood of 2005. With the displacement of so many generational residents and the influx of enabled young artists and musicians from around the world, the city’s music scene has become much more competitive. 

With so many enthusiasts coming to practice, much of the music has become diluted, lost its authenticity and become a caricature of itself albeit performed, often times, by truly excellent musicians. One mustn’t lose sight of the fact that New Orleans is a 300-year-old port city. Everyone here came from somewhere else and it’s all those different flavors being continually thrown in together that makes New Orleans’ culture so rich.

What’s new and innovative in NO jazz today?  

Much of what’s new in New Orleans today is actually rooted in the old and traditional but there has always been a progressive jazz faction in artists like Astral Project, Nicholas Payton, and now Christian Scott, for example.  Since 2005, there’s been a growing interest in open improvised music and much of that can fall under the jazz mantle. 

Jeff Albert’s “Open Ears” series ran for years. Now there are several weekly improvisational venues in Jason van Ness’ “Instant Opus” series, and the new listening room Side Bar NOLA. I’m seeing free improvisation gaining greater audience interest every year. We have some true virtuosi in bassist James Singleton, drummers Johnny Vidacovich and Simon Lott, percussionist Mike Dillon, cellist Helen Gillet and guitarist Rob Cambre, to name only a few.

This is not the squeak and squawk performance by a crew not ready for chord changes yet; this becomes exquisitely spontaneous compositions by master musicians, forward-leaning New Orleans polyphony at its best.   

“Plunge” – an obvious reference to special effects, but what other meanings did you intend?  

I designed that project to present the trombone as the prominent melodic lead instrument. One way to achieving that is to use lower-range accompanying instruments exclusively. The first lineup consisted of trombone, baritone sax, contrabass, tuba, percussion and drums. The weightiness of the word PLUNGE appealed to me. It’s a very gravitational word; heavy. The reference to the wah-wah or “plunger” mute is coincidental.  

Who’s in your band these days?

This group grew out of a duo gig I had been doing with Matt Lemmler. Matt used to play with the great clarinetist Pete Fountain so he was a natural choice to present the standards with. While possessing an unmistakable New Orleans flavor in his sound, Matt also has a uniquely beautiful approach to melody and reharmonization. Originally, I considered only making a duo record but as I began composing the other material a bass voice emerged. 

Contrabassist James Singleton has worked with me on all but my first PLUNGE albums. Besides his adventurous musical spirit, he incorporates a tremendous number of percussive effects in his playing. This makes going drummerless even easier. 

I have worked with singer John Boutté for many years. It is a tremendous honor to have his contribution on this record. I often compose lyrics to my melodies but rarely get to have them sung. For me, including lyrics into the compositional process helps produce melodies that are appealing to human ears. I never anticipated that they would actually ever be sung, so having John’s voice on the session was a real treat.

What do you think about all the unfortunate trombone jokes? Well-deserved or off the mark?

I love trombone jokes almost as much as I adore banjo and bagpipe jokes, so long as they center around the comedy of the instrument and not the origins of its player.

Places you’ve always wanted to play?

I’m drawn to urban centers: Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam and Belfast (I’d love to be part of an Irish jazz uprising!). I’ve played in some of those cities and would love to again. I live to play in other places and in front of new audiences. If a gig involves working with newly acquainted local musicians it’s even more of a treat!

How has promoting a band changed from years past, aside from the advantages of social media?  

It’s changed a lot of course. When I first started out, everyone had an answering service, then a code-a-phone, and even pagers. Now it’s the Wild West out there. Some people can only be reached via messaging on social media and others can’t be found except by private text or phone. Because there are so many more doors to knock on today it actually requires much more effort on the artist’s part.  

Biggest challenge for the musician today?

The biggest challenge is always making the bills. Musicians face diminishing returns via everything from booking and travel mishaps, instrument depreciation, repair and replacement costs, talent costs, etc. 

With an inconsequential amount of income from streaming and downloads, and the high cost of recording, the greatest probability of recouping the expense of production is through live performance.  

Tours in 2018?

I’m hoping to get up to NY and Boston this spring and hit the Midwest and West Coast in summer. Until then I’ll be playing in New Orleans Feb. 15th at Snug Harbor, with John Boutté at d.b.a. most Mondays, and of course Jazz Fest on April 29th in the Jazz Tent with John.

Other comments?

Thanks for your interest Debbie!  I look forward to your words!

For more information, visit www.markmcgrain.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mark McGrain.

© Debbie Burke 2018

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