Chicago-based trombonist Jeb Bishop and his trio perform at The Camel on Friday alongside No BS! Brass.
Editor’s note: Jeb Bishop is an established trombonist on the Chicago jazz scene and beyond, having regularly performed with artists such as Ken Vandermark, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Peter Brötzmann, Jeff Albert, and Hamid Drake. His trio recently released their newest album “2009” and will be performing alongside No BS! Brass at The Camel this Friday, September 10. Trombonist to trombonist, Bryan Hooten talked to him about his style, his background, and his philosophical hunches.
BH: It seems to me that Trombone players are a pretty tight-knit group of cats that get along really well. Do you agree, and if so, why do you suppose that is?
JB: That does seem to be the case and maybe it is because the trombone has a little bit of an ‘underdog’ status … there’s not much chance of being a star (although Trombone Shorty seems to be figuring it out!), so the ego/competition thing doesn’t come into play so much, and we can just commisserate, drown our sorrows, talk about mouthpieces, etc.
Nowhere is this more obvious than your hosting of New Orleans trombonist Jeff Albert during the aftermath of Katrina. Could you talk a little about that relationship and the album it spawned, Lucky 7’s: Pluto Junkyard.
Jeff and I had already met online and in person (when I played in New Orleans with my trio and with Brotzmann Tentet) before that, so when the storm hit I called him just to see how he was doing, and we got to talking about how it was going to kill a lot of his work for a while, and the idea just came up of him coming to Chicago to do some playing, and it grew out of that. Before Pluto Junkyard there was another CD also, called Farragut. You can check out both at lucky7s.org. The idea was to co-lead a group that was big enough and flexible enough to provide a lot of compositional/arranging/orchestration possibilities. I think the writing for it covers a lot of different kinds of ground.
You were born in the south (North Carolina). Do you feel like that upbringing has influenced your musical voice?
It must have, but it is hard to say how. I didn’t grow up surrounded by bluegrass or anything like that, although later on one of the bands I was in (Angels of Epistemology) dealt with that kind of obliquely. I was the first in my family to pursue music seriously and my original involvement was as a classical musician, which I don’t see as tied to Southern culture particularly.
But there is a certain kind of grittiness that has always attracted me in music and that I think I try to put across, that I think you could also find in certain Southern music. And so many important jazz musicians were from the South that there is probably a cultural strain there also.
Could you talk a little about this trio, its formation and the unique compositional/improvisational options inherent in the trombone, bass and drums combination?
With a trio you give up some orchestrational options, but what you gain is a lot of flexibility and mobility, and the chance for the music to have maximum spontaneity and to be reinvented in performance. In terms of timbre, the trombone/bass combination is one I have always enjoyed — I like playing duos with bass players — so that feels comfortable to me. And Frank and Jason are both wide open in terms of how they approach their instruments coloristically and in terms of the role the instrument can play in the band. That is important to me, because a big challenge of a trio is for it to not sound kind of the same all the time.
I have to say you have a truly unique sound and approach to the trombone. What drew you to this instrument?
I started in public school band programs when I was 9 or 10. I wanted to play trumpet at first but they guided me toward the trombone, maybe because they needed more trombone players! But I loved it right away. I just remember being attracted to a certain kind of crackling or splattering attack I heard brass instruments make, and I am still trying to make that sound!
Like many young trombonists, you were on the path towards becoming an orchestral player. What happened?
I reached a point at which it seemed to me that to stay on that path felt too narrow. I was very young at the time and had I had more knowledge and insight I might have realized that I could also learn about and pursue other things while working on being a classical player, but at the time, and in the music school environment I was in, that did not seem like a realistic option. So I left music school, but began checking out other musical areas pretty much right away.
Chicago seems to be a fertile breeding ground for forward-thinking trombonists (you, Ray Anderson, George Lewis). Why do you think that is?
Ray and George were in school together as kids for a while in Hyde Park (I think that is correct), so there must have been something special happening there! But I would say more that Chicago has been a center for forward-thinking musicians in general for a long time, and I have been very fortunate to be involved in some way in that tradition.
How is the Chicago scene these days?
Right now it seems about as good as it has ever been; there are lots of places to play and a good spirit of inquiry and collaboration among the musicians, a willingness to look across genre boundaries, and not much in the way of the unhealthy aspects of competitiveness.
You have multiple degrees in philosophy. Of the thinkers you studied or continue to study, who would have made the best trombone player?
This wins the award for most original interview question so far! Unfortunately I do not have a snappy answer. Wittgenstein was apparently an excellent amateur clarinetist and a world-class whistler, but his musical tastes seem to have been pretty narrow. Heidegger would probably have had some kind of woolly issues about technology and music. In general it is hard to imagine most philosophers loosening up enough to be good trombonists, so maybe it would have to be some sort of postmodernist. Or, actually, I can imagine Socrates being good at it — he was a good improviser and a champion drinker.
Or maybe the best answer is George Lewis, who I think we can call a philosopher (if he wouldn’t mind my saying so), and who is in fact one of the best trombone players.
Who, among trombone players, (besides George Lewis) would make the best philosopher?
Giancarlo Schiaffini certainly looks the part. A lot of trombonists seem to have a certain theoretical/intellectual bent, though.
photo by Fred Lonberg-Holm