Dennis Rollins: Bad to the 'bone

It's the horn that time forgot - difficult, slow and oh-so awkward. But for a bit of bottom and a raspy riff, nothing beats the trombone. Nick Coleman talks to the recent BBC Jazz Award-winner and top tailgater Dennis Rollins about fat chords and rivers of spit
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The Independent Culture

Fanfare. Tucket. What connects 16th-century Venice with 21st-century Doncaster? It's not a trick question. And the answer has nothing to do with rising damp or pizza. Give up? Here is a clue... On Thursday last, the world appeared briefly to become a better place when the prestigious BBC Jazz Award for Best Band went to Dennis Rollins' Badbone & Co.

Rollins and his young group play modernist jazz with a funk bone structure. They're terrific. Yet Rollins' instrument is the trombone, a horn of such marginal presence in the wide-open spaces of contemporary music that it has been placed on an official "endangered species" list. On Thursday night, trombone bars the length and breadth of the country were in uproar, much as Rome had been last Sunday night.

What connects Renaissance Venice and modern Doncaster is their joint status as cradles of the brass instrument which time and culture have done their best to mislay. (When did you last see a trombone on Top of the Pops? Did it occur to you to hire a nine-piece trombone band to play at your daughter's wedding? Of course it didn't.) As the Jewel of the Adriatic was the home of the composer Giovanni Gabrieli, who placed the trombone (or sackbut) at the very heart of his culture, so is Doncaster the misty urban centre which nurtures the art of Rollins, a militant trombonista for our own time.

Trombones are difficult, awkward even. In a world that prizes compactness, speed and flexibility, trombones are slow, cumbersome and not awfully flexible. Trombonists need to be fit. They need good joints, jaws, strength, stamina. Try this: place a dictionary on your left shoulder and hold it there with the fingers of your left hand. Now crook your right hand into a claw and move that same arm with minutely graduated precision between the tip of your nose and the arm's farthest extension, up and down, back and forth, slidey slide, at right angles to your face. Do it for an hour, while pumping a fat column of air violently from your diaphragm and screwing your face up into a ball. Not a picnic.

But trombonists do it because they love it. They love the sound they make and, whisper it, they love the sense of power it gives them.

"There is no sound like the trombone," says Rollins.

He is in a bar at Heathrow, in transit between Doncaster and Macedonia, where he has a gig tonight.

"It has a dark tone and it's dark in pitch. Compare it to, say, the alto sax and trumpet and you see why it's never been as popular. Alto saxes speak in a register that is comfortable to the human ear. In colour terms you might say it's golden, and the trumpet yellow. But the trombone... you'd have to say it was brown. And people feel more comfortable with those warmer colours. They don't know how to accept the darkness of the trombone."

Trombones do power, they do grandeur, they do riffs, they do brooding, they do tearing calico. It is not surprising that in the aestheticised world of high Baroque and Classical music there wasn't much call for them. That's enlightenment for you. Only in Romantic and Modern composition do the instrument's qualities as both a sound-effect and a vocaliser of godlike range and oomph find much idiomatic expression.

And then there's jazz. The trombone was at the heart of jazz from its beginnings, its slippery rasp and chromatic vocalisms doing important jobs - ballast, texture, bottom, belly - in both small groups and big bands, until bebop came along to make fleetness the cardinal of all the modernist virtues.

Rollins started in brass bands in Yorkshire, at the age of 12. There was nothing metaphysical in his choice. He hadn't dreamed of fat chords and rivers of spit. He was simply handed "the last instrument in the cupboard" and got on with it. He became a Jazz Warrior in due course, a tailgater to the Eighties "jazz revival" which engaged a generation of young black Brits. He played with Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Cleveland Watkiss. He joined Jazz Jamaica. A couple of years ago he mustered a nine-piece trombone band at the Royal Festival Hall to explore the demotic of North Carolina "Shout Bands". "If you can imagine a Gospel choir," he says grinning, "but instead of singing, it's trombones plus drums and sousaphone... I wanted the brashness of a vocal group and wrote for it accordingly. I had to coach the players. I told them, I don't want you to play like you're doing a session for the BBC; I want you to play like your heart is about to burst... Feel the church. I wanted them to improvise not like jazz but as if they were preaching."

Rollins' first hero was Al Grey, who parped with the Count Basie Orchestra between 1957 and 1961. But then he copped the silvery fluency of J J Johnson's bebop records and everything changed. Here was a super-articulate player who flouted bebop's no-trombones tendency. Johnson played with pace, lucidity and lyric flair (if without the attack of such modernists as Mingus's Jimmy Knepper, who referred back to the New Orleans "tailgate" style even as he lent the instrument new powers of abstraction).

"J J did what Sarah Vaughan would do - he sang the melody. I love that aspect of the instrument. I even approach funk from the lyrical standpoint..." Clearly, the time had come to explore the slippery voicings of Miff Mole, Kid Ory, Tommy Dorsey, trombonists of an earlier, still more mellifluous era.

So the trombone is a polymorphous beast after all, not a one-trick pony. Take Jamaica. For a while, the trombone was the island's national intrument, which, in the hands of the fabled Don Drummond, brought both darkness and light, warmth and texture to early reggae music. Rollins reckons it's the horn's vocal qualities which suited its voice so happily to the intimate ventricles of the one-drop.

He's right, of course. But reggae has tempo issues too, and if it has one quality which distinguishes it from all other musics, it's the in-built quality of measurement and restraint. You can't hurry reggae. And a trombone never, ever likes to make haste. "It's funny," says Rollins. "When you hear a Jamaican trombonist, whether from the Forties or now - say Vin Gordon or Rico Rodriguez - what you hear is relaxation, simplicity, heart. I love that. I try to find it sometimes, that calmness." Then there are the storms. Wagner. Stravinsky. Nelson Riddle. Rollins cites the section break-out in Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin" (on Songs For Swinging Lovers) as one of the most thrilling moments in trombone history. Riddle scores the thing like a mini-concerto for an entire trombone section, climaxing with a solo, while the rest of the orchestra heaves subordinately at the limits of tasteful control. "Vooh-dah," sings Dennis. "Va-doh va-doh va-doh-vung... rrraaaargh - oh, the warmth, the attack, the tone, the sheer balls of it... Even now, thinking about it, I tell you, that is one of the most beautiful sounds there is." His eyes are shining. My heart is fit to burst.

Rollins tells me about his plans to launch a solo project involving a ring modulator to go with all the guitar foot-pedals he already modifies his sound with.

But I am deafened by the sound of trombones in my head - 76 of them, as prescribed in the unedifying hit song which, in 1961, made trombones the whistle on everyone's lips. Yet 76 seems like such a paltry number.

Dennis Rollins' Badbone & Co are touring the UK:

Five essential trombone outbursts

Massaino's 'Canzon per otto tromboni'

If 16th-century Venice was brass music's forge, its anvil was the cathedral of San Marco, where endless galleries and fabulous echo lent grandeur to even the fartiest sackbut tone. Not much is known about Massaino, but we can guess a thing or two from his "Canzon", which was composed for eight trombones and nothing but - presumably for some major feast day of the Church calendar. The "Canzon" is slow, serpentine, heavy as bronze, mobile as lava. If you wanted a single adjective to express the music's terrifying splendour, "brooding" would be the one. I know of only two recordings, the best being the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble's one on Decca, now out of print. You can find the London Brass ensemble's treatment of it on Gabrieli in Venice on Warner Classics.

Mozart's Requiem

The trombone is not a Mozartian instrument, not by a long stretch. Yet one of the first great outbursts of hardcore trombonery in the classical canon is "Tuba Mirum", in the Requiem. " Tuba mirum spargens sonum," sings the bass. "The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound throughout the tombs of every land, shall gather all before the throne." Quite so. It is a call to waken the dead to judgement. So, naturally, the dying Wolfgang got a trombone in.

Mingus's 'Dizzy Moods'

No one composed more idiomatically for the trombone than Charles Mingus, whose "Dizzy Moods", on Tijuana Moods (RCA), is a tour de force for the grouchy magnificence of his favourite tailgater, Jimmy Knepper. The front line also includes trumpet and alto sax, but it's Knepper's slippery ellipsoids which boss the show. Bass and drums walk the walk, but it's the trombone that does the talking.

Rico's 'Ramble'

The trombone has long been a central voice in Jamaican music, most influentially in the hands of Don Drummond back in the Sixties. It's a tradition handsomely maintained by Emmanuel "Rico" Rodriguez, who's been a boss reggae 'bone for three decades. "Ramble", from Roots to the Bone (Island), is what trombones sound like with sun on their backs, a leisurely, smiling, golden three-minute stroll on the sand.

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's 'When I See Mommy I Feel Like a Mummy'

The trombone, en masse, is the only instrument with sufficient weight, texture and sheer air-shifting oomph to rival the electric guitar as a riff machine. Just ask Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra. But what happens when the trombone goes head to head with electric guitars, on equal footing? Hideous racket, you'd imagine. Not in the hands of Captain Beefheart, who deploys Bruce Fowler's horn as an organising obbligato against the splintered cut and thrust of rhythm and bottle-neck guitars. "When I See Mommy...", on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), is the greatest rock'n'roll trombone record of them all.NC