"Head to Head"



"United Soul Experience"

Criss Cross

The trombone is often a neglected instrument in modern jazz; it's a difficult vehicle for virtuosity and its braying notes may be too earthy for today's cerebral musicians. Despite these handicaps, the modern era has yielded some impressive trombonists -- Robin Eubanks, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson and others. Wycliffe Gordon is the most technically accomplished of the bunch, and he displays his skills on three new albums.

Gordon joins pianist Eric Reed, his former band mate from the great Wynton Marsalis Septet of the early '90s, on the unaccompanied duo album, "We." The disc opens and closes with hymns (and adds two more in the middle), and these two products of the black church compensate for the sparseness of their instrumentation with the fervor of their belief. More revealing is the tender lyricism that Gordon gets from his unwieldy instrument on such jazz standards as Duke Ellington's "Paris Blues," George Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and trombonist J.J. Johnson's "Lament."

Gordon teams up with fellow trombonist John Allred on "Head to Head." Allred, who has played with Toshiko Akiyoshi and Harry Connick, picked the tunes (mostly pre-1960 standards, including five by Ellington) and the rhythm section. But it's Gordon who takes the most impressive solos, creating a distinctive blues voice whose tone and phrasing remind us how important the trombone was to the '30s and '40s.

Finally, Gordon is the sole bandleader on "United Soul Experience," which recalls Blue Note-era studio jams preceded by minimal preparation. In this case, Gordon met the avant-leaning saxophonist Seamus Blake, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Larry Grenadier and powerhouse drummer Bill Stewart for only a three-hour rehearsal the day before the session. Yet six of the eight resulting tracks clock in at seven to 10 minutes of unflagging invention, wry humor and empathetic interplay, from the high-energy "Get It! Get It!" and frisky "In Flight" to the elegantly lyrical ballads "Karen's Contemplation" and "Everyday." The album closes with a blues-ily elegiac bass/trombone duet reading of Duke Ellington's rarely heard "Low Key Lightly."

-- Geoffrey Himes

Wycliffe Gordon appearing Monday at the University of Maryland's Smith Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "We," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8102; for a Sound Bite from "Head to Head," press 8103; for a Sound Bite from "United Soul Experience," press 8104. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)