James Hall 1

Standing midway between his sax player and flutist, New York-based trombonist James Hall delivers tendrils of texture and thoughtful harmony in his latest CD, “Lattice.” Together with their keyboard and drummer, the quintet presents smart, bright voices in an open conversation with music that sweeps the listener away.

“Lattice” is a pastel platter of prettiness. The cool and crispy sound of the track called “Black Narcissus” has delicious interplay between sax and trombone. The honey-sweet flute in “Gaillardia” is matched by Hall’s soft attack, and in his solo, his melodic wanderings take us to sun-drenched corners. Named for a grape, “Shoy” speaks to us with drama and a very cool swing courtesy of the drums and piano; lyricism takes over with the flute and ’bones. The ins and outs/musical chairs effect of sax, flute and trombone is something fresh and exciting, a round-robin definitely worth hearing.

When and why did you start trombone?

At my elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska, all fifth graders got the opportunity to learn a band instrument. I wanted to play the clarinet or saxophone, but the band director needed trombones to fill out the band. In his wisdom, he gave me both a clarinet and a trombone to take home and try.

Of course, the only sound I could get on a clarinet was this awful squeak, whereas I could make a slightly less irritating (though no less professional) sound on the trombone, so I was won over.

Who are some of the leaders in the field you look up to and are inspired by?

That list would start with great historical influences, including Bessie Smith for phrasing and affect, Albert Mangelsdorff for pushing the limits of the trombone and Curtis Fuller for tone and swing. Then I’d move to teachers and mentors I’ve had the pleasure of studying with, including Ed Neumeister, Hal Crook, Mike Dease, Nick Keelan and Fred Sturm.

Then there’s the community of musicians here in New York, some of them just a few years older than me, who have been great mentors, colleagues and influences. Ryan Keberle, Nick Finzer, and Jacob Garchik are three who are redefining what it means to be a trombonist/composer/bandleader in the 21st century. And then there are folks like Jamie, Deanna, Allan, Tom, and Sharel who are leaders in their own ways.

Each instrument and each sub-genre is a world unto itself, so the pool is as deep and as wide as you want it to be.

What was the highlight of your training at Lawrence? At Copland?

Lawrence was a dream. Learning jazz composition and arranging with the great Fred Sturm will always be a career highlight, and I wouldn’t have the fundamentals to play trombone at a professional level without Nick Keelan.

The Copland School was a mixed experience, but I got some fantastic compositional training in orchestration and counterpoint in the classical music department there.

How long to overcome the challenges of no valves or keys?

Muscle memory plays a part. I’d have to ask a violinist: they don’t have frets either, and the margin of error for intonation is much smaller.

How did you meet Jamie Baum?

I knew I wanted to do a project with trombone and flute, so I started making some phone calls and sending some emails asking for recommendations. Jamie’s name kept coming up, but it felt like a long shot calling her because she’s such an established figure in the New York scene, and somebody that everyone looks up to. But when we spoke, it was clear that we love a lot of the same music and have a similar aesthetic. Jamie’s been a fantastic collaborator and mentor as this project has grown.

What was it like to play with the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra?

I’ve played with the WSO for over five years now, since just after they started. It’s been a blast and a workout!

What is the jazz scene like where you live?

Well, it’s New York City. I think that says it all. But more specifically, there’s a thriving under-the-radar progressive jazz and new music scene happening in central/south Brooklyn that is really teeming with talent and innovation: genre-blurring, virtuosic and scrappy.

Talk about the members of your quartet.

The working band is a quintet with Jamie Baum, Deanna Witkowski, Tom DiCarlo and Allan Mednard, and when we have the space and resources, we add alto sax, which was Sharel Cassidy on the album and Andrew Gould on the album release show.

Do you compose as if you are writing duets for yourself and Jamie?

To a certain extent, yes! Two-voice counterpoint was the centerpiece of this project from the first stages of composition.

What is it about the timbre and range of these two instruments that make it work?

Timbre was the least of my worries. I play a larger-bore trombone with more of a classical sound, so the blend with flute was better from the get-go. Range actually wasn’t too much of an issue either. Jamie plays lots of alto flute on this album, and alto flute with tenor trombone is as nice a blend as alto sax and trombone. Volume, however, is the tricky part. It can be hard to play trombone at a soft enough volume to blend with alto flute in some contexts, but fortunately Jamie has a sophisticated setup with a great-sounding microphone and amp that allow us to match volume really well. 

James Hall CD

What inspired “Lattice”?

The album began as a tribute to my girlfriend (now my wife!). The idea of interwoven parts, two-voice counterpoint, and the general harmonic and melodic direction were inspired by her.

What is “Shoy” about?

“Shoy” is a sort of transliteration of “Scheu” for Scheurebe, a grape varietal that makes some amazing wine. I spent a summer working at the Lingenfelder vineyard in Grosskarlbach, Germany, and wrote this song while I was there. Wine is another of my passions, and I was intrigued by the idea of writing a piece of music inspired by the taste of a wine.

What did you do for the release?

We played an album release show February 9th at Rockwood Music Hall, on the Lower East Side in New York.

How does this album represent who you are musically?

“Lattice” is a representation of what I like about the trombone, what I like about counterpoint, timbre and melody. It represents a contrast to my first album in that it’s closer to the jazz mainstream and that it’s instrumental. It’s also highly personal, inspired by love and somewhat biographical.

For more information, visit www.jameshallmusic.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of James Hall.
© Debbie Burke 2018

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