Scott Wendholt Quartet, “Beyond Thursday”
“On a day when I’m feeling really good, I can get around almost anything I want to say on the trumpet,” responds the 32-year-old trumpeter Scott Wendholt when complemented on his technical abilities. That’s not idle bravado. His playing on “Beyond Thursday” makes it clear that he's a virtuoso, the kind of improviser who conceives and executes monstrously complex passages with such fluid elegance and golden tone that his prodigious technique never calls attention to itself.
Born July 21, 1965 in Denver, Colorado, and raised in the Mile High City, Wendholt first picked up the trumpet in the third grade and began improvising in the fifth. He was inspired by two exceptional teachers, Linda Walker and Ed Barnes. Barnes ran a city-wide elementary school group that “played some Blues and a reasonable facsimile of jazz; he was an inspirational guy who provided at least some tools for jazz improvisation. In ninth grade, Greg Gisbert, a classmate who’s a great trumpeter living in New York, hipped me to Art Blakey’s “Straight Ahead,” featuring Wynton Marsalis, which I listened to hundreds of times. Up to that point jazz to me was Al Hirt, Chuck Mangione, and Spyro Gyra, because there wasn’t really any jazz in my house. That’s when I started to realize, “Oh, wait a minute; this is Jazz,” and began to understand what the term Bebop meant. I had a lot of friends within a grade or two of me who went on to become great players, like Gisbert, Javon Jackson, John Gunther (a great tenor player), guitarist Mike Abbott, drummer Peter Abbott, and alto saxophonist Brad Leali, who I had a lot of opportunities to play with in extracurricular bands, or all-county or all-city type things. It was a very fertile time.”
Wendholt attended Indiana University, in David Baker’s Jazz Studies program, between 1983 and 1987. “It was a very productive four years. David was inspirational to me as was Alan Dean, a wonderful teacher with whom I studied trumpet. Bob Hurst was there, Ralph Bowen, Jim Beard, Pharez Whitted, the tenor player Tom Gullion, altoist David Bixler, and pianist Joe Gilman. Also Chris Botti and Shawn Pelton, who have had great success on the pop scene. After leaving I.U. I moved to Cincinnati, where I stayed until 1989. I had a steady gig at King’s Island amusement park with a Rock-and-Roll band, which got me into the scene there. I then started playing with the Blue Wisp Big Band, a good band led by the drummer John Van Ohlen, and working sideman gigs. I hooked up with some great piano players, like Steve Schmidt, Bill Cunliffe, Ed Moss, and Phil De Greg. Bill is living in New York now and sounds great. All of them could hold their own in New York City if they chose to. I was welcome in Cincinnati because there weren’t a whole lot of younger horn players that were hungry and into rehearsing and playing a lot of music. It was a good training ground to be a leader, for learning tunes that were appropriate for small group gigs. I was basically just learning how to hang out, too, before the possible trauma of moving to New York.
“New York had always been on my agenda, but I had no specific timetable to move there. I had an NEA grant to study with Dave Liebman, whom I’d met at a Jamey Aebersold camp some years before. I played with his combo then, but I wasn’t advanced enough to soak up that much. So I’d always had this unsatisfied feeling about the experience, and I took the opportunity to try to glean from him some of the things which a more advanced player could. I didn’t have to move to New York to study with Dave, but it was an ingredient that made it easier."
“My initiation to New York was slower than some. I didn’t know many people, so I was starting from square one. I played bad Latin gigs late at night, then began doing club dates. From the get go I was going to places like Augie’s, sitting in and doing sessions at people’s houses, and things started to branch out from there. In 1992, I hooked up with Vincent Herring, who hired me for my first real legitimate sideman gig.”
Wendholt’s blend of freedom with discipline gave him entree to New York’s big band scene; he’s worked with Toshiko Akiyoshi, Bob Mintzer, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and the Carnegie Hall Big Band. Most recently he's occupied the Thad Jones chair in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. “The Vanguard band is great for me. It offers so many chances to play different types of solos. I get more opportunities to be introspecitive in this group than in almost any other big band situation. Also any given Monday can be different than previous ones thanks to the bands extensive repertoire."
“I do think that in a lot of jazz groups the ensemble playing isn’t as tight as it could be. When I worked with Vincent, he played everything very consistently, and my big band training enabled me to follow him quickly. I’ve locked in similarly with Steve Wilson when we’ve played in Bruce Barth’s Quintet. I think the younger guys who worked in some really good big bands are good at zeroing in on the small nuances that make things tight, knowing who’s in charge at any given moment.”
In the middle of 1991, Wendholt gathered a quartet to play Thursday evenings at Augie’s, the uptown Manhattan bar near the Columbia University campus that’s been a gathering place for New York’s young jazz talent since the latter 1980’s. The group remained intact for 3 1/2 years, often augmented by tenor saxophonist Don Braden. For “Beyond Thursday,” Wendholt’s fourth recording as a leader (he’s done three for Criss-Cross), he was offered the opportunity to reunite the ensemble to reprise some familiar tunes and tackle a few new ones.
“The band wasn’t together before the gig at Augie’s,” Wendholt recalls, “but I had played with each guy in different situations. Dave Berkman was one of the first pianists I met in New York. He’s the best comper I have played with; very organic comping. I like to free things up, to have the option to go somewhere else harmonically at any moment, sometimes somewhere where it’s really taking a chance — and Dave’s always right there. Everything he plays has a purpose. Some of the musicians Dave’s played with include Tom Harrell, Dakota Staton, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and Elliott Zigmund, with whom he did a collaborative record."
“I met Tony Scherr during sessions at Dave’s house. Tony was playing a lot of jazz gigs during the time we were at Augie’s; now he’s branched off into diverse areas of music. He plays with the Lounge Lizards. He’s played with Al DiMeola (he’s a great electric bass player as well) and Sophie B. Hawkins, the Pop singer. He adds a lot of harmonic creativity to the rhythm section. He’s a swinging bassist who can do anything a horn soloist does and is open to going anywhere.
“I was doing a lot of sessions with Andy Watson then, too. He’s very Bebop-oriented, and he grounds the rhythm section. If the time was starting to get fuzzy, he’d lock it in and you’d go with him. He’s played with Jim Hall and a lot of others.”
“Beyond Thursday” features two originals by Wendholt and two by Berkman, two jazz standards, and three selections from the Great American Songbook. “Most of the material,” the leader comments, “is from things we used to do at Augie’s. Some of them have developed quite a bit, some didn’t, some stayed fairly much the same. For this date I tried to pick some of the more inspired tunes we had been playing.”
Wendholt's incisive remarks on his stylistic antecedents tell us a lot about how he approaches this music: “I was very much influenced by Woody Shaw’s approach to the trumpet, which is so liquid. His playing, his phrasing and his lines take so many turns, he’d play in groups of five all of a sudden, or crush in 11 notes in a space where you’d expect two or three. I also listened to Freddie Hubbard a lot. You’ve got to be attracted to Freddie’s command, the force with which he presents everything — just so sure of himself. His ability on the trumpet was uncanny. He had so much facility, he could play anything he wanted. I love the Miles Davis Quintet of the ’60s, how transparent, intuitive and interactive the rhythm section was together, how they allowed so much to just organically grow. Miles was the greatest leader by example. He’d say just the right amount, knowing exactly how to make someone deliver and feel like they can. I also enjoy Kenny Dorham, the sweet and beautiful melodic approach that’s unique to him. There’s a maturity in K.D.’s sound that I’m attracted to; he plays subtle things that I really dig."
“I never dissected things much or took a real analytical approach to learning jazz. There were times when I did some transcriptions and analyzations of solos for classes. But most of my learning came from repeated listening to records, tapes, whatever was going on around me, and trying to apply it myself via my ear — less cognitive, more intuitive. As for my own writing, I tend to come up with slightly less than conventional forms. Not to say that they are really far out, but just a little shorter or longer than traditional phrasing, giving them something slightly different. I suppose I sort of solo this way as well.” The leader’s self-analysis is borne out in the title track, a bracing waltz with a memorable melody.
The normally laconic Coloradan raves about Dave Berkman's two nuanced compositions. Of the Shorteresque Not A Christmas Song, Scott remarks, “I think it’s one of the best originals by a contemporary of mine, so beautiful and subtle. It has a nice open section, breathes a lot, then goes into the changes with the background at the end for the release after the long section of tension. Fairy Tale we used to play a lot at Augie’s. It has a rhythmic phrase that keeps repeating and changing notes, creating so much tension and release as well as buildup, which with the bars of silence at the end and the hard changes to blow over, make it quirky, interesting and challenging to play on.”
Berkman arranged The Party’s Over and I’ll Be Seeing You prior to the band’s formation. The former “was written for quintet, but because the Rhodes’ strong sound can make it sound like a horn, he plays the second line at some points under me. The arrangement has some nice substitute harmonies, some pedal type points that free it up instead of being like an old-time standard.” Wendholt plays an exquisite out-of-time verse type introduction on We’ll Be Together Again; his emotive, songlike improvisation is a highlight of the date.
The creative restructuring of Thelonious Monk’s Well, You Needn’t, alternating between a slow groove and double-time, conjuring the sound of Miles Davis’ first electric period, “was kind of an organic rhythm section arrangement. I think Tony came up with the funky bass line. The structure’s a little bit elongated. Instead of being AABA, 32-bar form, which the original tune is, it becomes half-time 12 bars twice, and then double-time for an 8-bar bridge, a regular bridge, then back to the 12-bar slow time.”
As for Miles Davis’ Pfrancing, “Beyond Thursday’s” most straight-ahead track: “I definitely played it with Miles in mind, a tribute to the way he would have played it. Approaching that tune I might step back a bit, take a little more time, be a little more concise about my ideas.”
We noted Wendholt’s instrumental virtuosity at the top, but it’s his consummate musicality that makes “Beyond Thursday” a special statement. He offers a typically pragmatic assessment, “You can create some music with hardly any technique, and much more with a lot of technique. Whatever technique you have, you start playing that way. You’re not going to start to hear certain phrases or certain feelings, or be able to visualize yourself having them unless you have that technique under your hand.”
To conclude, read Benny Golson’s authoritative encomium in the notes to Vincent Herring’s 1994 Music-Masters release “Don’t Let It Go” : “Scott is a daredevil of sorts because he climbs atop the high wire and doesn’t look down, only ahead at his intended goal. This permits him to uncover so many different kinds of things. One must have courage in order to call these aberrational things to life over and over again.”