The late comic Lenny Bruce had a routine in which he’d relate the Hollywood-ized tale of a young jazz trumpet player who was trying to find his own sound. While stumbling through life he encounters, among other things, drugs and a stint with dance-band leader Lawrence Welk (Musician: "Man, I need some bread up front." Welk: "What’s the matter, you hungry? Wanna sandwich?"). With each setback the hero would say, "I’m just trying to find my own sound...."
As funny and cliched as this routine was, it did reflect a fundamental truth about music and musicians, jazz or otherwise. You are your sound. Your sound defines you. I can recall specific instances in live performances of Stan Getz, Miles Davis, David Liebman, and Thad Jones, to name just a few, in which one note transfixed every person in the room. As I sit and write these words I can’t recall the pitches, can’t recall the rhythms; but the sounds and resulting feelings in the room are still fresh in my memory.
I first heard Matt Hilgenberg four or five years ago, and I was immediately grabbed by his sound. At times dark and brooding, at times light and mercurial, it is always rich, clear, and his own. And I’m extremely pleased that we finally have a document of this young man’s music. While reflective of several jazz traditions, his writing and playing are prisms which project those traditions into a personal vision of what is and what will be, not simply what was.
Matt has assembled a strong supporting cast to aid and abet him in this venture.
On saxophone we hear Jared Hunter. Matt says, "We are a similar age, and our playing abilities have developed and become more adventurous as we have gotten older together." He describes Jared as "a spider of sorts- one who can send out feelers in several directions at once, seeking out new ways of expressing how he feels at any given moment."
There is also a first-class rhythm section:
Pianist Frank Kimbrough is best known as a founding member of the Jazz Composers’ Collective. He’s also a mainstay of Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra. Matt says, "I have always respected and enjoyed every facet of his playing.....his touch is very sensitive, yet his creativity knows no bounds." For me the great rapport between Matt and Frank is one of the highlights of the whole CD.
Bassist Mike Richmond is a veteran of Gil Evans’s Orchestra, Stan Getz, George Gruntz’s Concert Jazz Band, many other groups. He’s a stalwart on the New York scene.
Drummer Adam Nussbaum has played with just about everybody, including Stan Getz, Gil Evans, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, John Scofield, Dave Liebman, etc., etc. He’s a great accompanist; there’s always something happening. He’s a great soloist. And he SWINGS! ‘Nuff said....
The program opens with "Sharon", a vehicle for Matt’s dark, rich lyricism on the flugelhorn. Written for "the kind of friend that makes me feel like a better person for knowing her," says Matt, the tune also reflects the influence of Kenny Wheeler, both in the writing and the playing. Throughout Matt’s solo he gets terrific pianistic support from Frank Kimbrough. There are also solo contributions from Frank and from Mike Richmond on the bass before the out head.
Sigmund Romberg’s "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise" is the only standard tune in the program. Matt gives it an exotic point of view by playing it in a cup mute, and by altering some of the melody to give it an "Eastern" flavor. The groove set up by Mike Richmond and Adam Nussbaum give the whole piece a kind of funky exoticism. Listen to the way they "stir the pot" under Kimbrough’s sustained chordal accompaniment. And, by the way—there’s nothing wrong with your stereo system. The mysterious sounds you hear during that terrific bass solo are Mike Richmond’s "vocalese" (perhaps we’ll hear a duo album with Keith Jarrett someday?)
In "Bruise" the tune is played twice. Each time it’s a set of three six-measure phrases, each phrase ending with Adam Nussbaum’s brush commentary. Only when we get into the solos do we realize that this "Bruise" is a "Blues". Frank Kimbrough shows his be-bop side, Matt weaves lines in and around the changes, and Mike Richmond rhythmically mixes it up in his solo. The energy really lifts in the exchange of 12’s—Domo (Adam Nussbaum) opens up the afterburners here!
"Her Sixth Sense" helps cool down the atmosphere as we approach the mid-point of the CD. It is a harmonically rich ballad, reminiscent of Billy Strayhorn in it’s melody, harmonic structure and overall movement.
Frank Kimbrough’s "The Spins" quickly shifts the mood into territory staked out by Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. The tune seems to leap out of the speakers with it’s jumps and angles and broken rhythms. The group has now grown to a quintet, with the addition of Jared Hunter on tenor saxophone. Composer Kimbrough solos first, then Matt, and then Jared spins his slippery lines over the changes. All three are spurred on by the Richmond/Nussbaum rhythm team.
In "Rasa" Kimbrough and Hunter take a break, leaving the lean, open texture of flugelhorn/bass/drums. Some years ago I asked Joe Henderson about playing with a rhythm section sans clavier. He was diplomatic enough to first say how great it was to play with a really good piano player comping behind him; then he said, "Of course, on a clear day, you can see forever!"
This tune opens with some broken drums, then moves into a lyrical melody over a churning rhythm section. You can really hear Mike Richmond’s accompanimental sense on this track.
"Dandy" is the most involved piece on the recording in terms of form and texture. It’s also the strongest emotional statement on the CD. In Matt’s words: "I wrote that tune about my grandfather’s (who was a cornet player and music teacher) death and me coming to terms with it. He was murdered on the highway in a random drive by shooting in South Dakota of all places. It took me years to come to terms with the randomness of the whole thing, but it culminated when my dad gave me my grampa’s old cornet, which I play on that tune. The tune is a lullaby for him, but also a search to find meaning in his passing."
It opens with solo cornet, in a
concert-hall kind of reverb. Later the cornet and tenor chase each other
with the melody, as it gradually melts like a Salvador Dali clock.
Kimbrough’s brief toy piano interlude introduces the trumpet solo. Then
the rhythm section stops and lets Frank ruminate over the theme. Finally,
the melody is re-stated by trumpet and piano. “This is the third section
of the melody,” says Matt, “and it represents me, many years later,
accepting his passing and celebrating his memory by playing his instrument
and writing this song for him.”
The album closes with “So
Here Goes...”, and Jared Hunter on soprano sax. Matt describes it as “kind
of an epilogue for the record”. It starts with a 12/8 groove, and what I’d
call a classic “Blue Note” feel to the horn writing. After a stunning
rhythm section interlude the feel shifts to a slower, swinging 4/4.
There’s an effective tutti before the ending. An ending, by the way, I
wish I had written!
Matt himself is
down-to-earth and pretty low key. When asked for a little information
about himself he just told me: “I like different sounds and influences
from around the world and I tried to convey that on this record. I feel so
lucky being in New York that I can get authentic food or hear music from
almost anywhere and I know I’m getting the real deal. I just want to take
a little part from everywhere and mix it in with my
Food and music. Sounds good to
me! And if I may mix a little of my own seasoning into the gumbo, let me
add that Matt Hilgenberg has made a strong opening statement that’s a
welcome addition to the world of modern jazz playing and composing. Let’s
hope that there are more to come!