I have a weakness for the trombone. To me, it's the vocalist of the brass section. Trombonists Benny Powell and Eddie Bert said as much when I interviewed them, and it's no wonder that Frank Sinatra learned as much as he did about singing from Tommy Dorsey. Same goes for vocalist David Allyn during his time with Jack Teagarden. More than any other instrument (except perhaps the French horn), you can hear the human voice expressed through the trombone's bell. Less of an egoist than the saxophone or trumpet, the trombone is always trying to convey something more than just notes. [Photo: John Abbott]
Which brings me to Clifton Anderson. The trombonist has just released Decade, his second album as a leader in more than a decade, and the result is impressive. Anderson shines as a stylist and storyteller, and clearly he has done his listening. Long a member of Sonny Rollins' group, Anderson emerges from the long musical shadow of the legendary tenor saxophonist with a distinct voice. On Decade, Anderson demonstrates a new level of maturity and offers a warm, round and purposeful sound. You hear history in Anderson's playing, but you also hear a 1970s groove. To my ear, there's a lot of Wayne Henderson in Anderson's attack.
But the big news is that Anderson is a savvy writer. Six of the 10 tunes on Decade are originals. The balance is made up of standards and one 1971 pop hit. Anderson's compositions are all strong and fresh, and they avoid being derivative. Best of all, they are tailor made to show off the trombonist's lyricism and powerful chops.
Noble is an up-tempo original named for Gil Noble, a long-time New York TV host and emcee at Sonny Rollins' 2007 Carnegie Hall concert. Anderson uses a fine yawning tone, dragging notes and holding them briefly in just the right spots.
So Wrong About You is a walking ballad that features some of Anderson's finest solo work. The trombonist's complete range of skills is showcased, from velvety triplet runs to lushly sensitive lines. I love how he glides over notes and then follows up with staccato punctuation.
I'm Old Fashioned is taken at a faster clip than you'd expect, and with a mute to boot! Once Anderson skitters across the song's melody line, he's off to the races. Behind the skillful slide work I sense a flicker of admiration for Chet Baker's romanticism.
Z is a strong hard bop love letter to a woman Anderson knew and is still strongly affected by, though he notes in an interview that the relationship has changed. No wonder he tags Laura. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett has a brisk solo followed by pianist Stephen Scott and bassist Christian McBride.
Anderson slows the pace considerably with I'm Glad There Is You. On the album's most patient ballad, Anderson features the trombone's vocalizing qualities, with a stylistic nod to Juan Tizol. I love how Anderson holds that last note. It's a tone that's still ringing in my head.
Deja Blu is a strutting blues spotlighting tenor saxophonist Eric Wyatt, whose dad Charles Wyatt is one of Rollins' childhood friends. As a tribute to Rollins, Wyatt references Alfie's Theme.
If is a pop tune recorded in 1971 by Bread and written by Bread bandmember David Gates. It took a lot of courage to take on this blue-eyed soul ballad, but Anderson pulls it off. Personally, I dig hearing these kinds of songs with a jazz treatment. I think jazz musicians for too long have ignored the wealth of soul and pop material available from the 1970s and 1980s in favor of stale Tin Pan Alley standards. Anderson here rolls the tune around on his instrument, giving the song more edge and sophistication than it had originally.
Aah Soon Come is the sort of Calypso tune you'd expect on a Rollins album. Though I was initially suspect, Anderson works this original nicely, tossing in a reference to Funiculi, Funicula. Wyatt on tenor is given the unenviable task of soloing hard without sounding like Sonny and pulls it off.
We'll Be Together Again is the only track that's a tad off. It opens with a lengthy intro before launching into the standard's melody. Anderson uses a mute, which for some odd reason sounds sonically suppressed on the recording.
Stubbs was written as a tribute to Anderson's friend, tenor saxophonist John Stubblefield, who died in 2005 of prostate cancer. It starts deceptively, with pianist Scott playing the opening measures alone, as a ballad. But soon enough the tune springs into a hard bop modal tribute, with Anderson roaring through the theme.
Decade is a solid work by Anderson, who clearly has a rich musical voice, a creative vision and a comprehensive grasp of the instrument's tender purpose. Playing with Rollins and maintaining the legend's frighteningly high energy level has been heady stuff for the trombonist. As a leader, Anderson has found himself and delivers the warmth. Hopefully we won't have to wait as long for his next CD.
JazzWax tracks: Clifton Anderson's Decade is available as a download or as a CD here.
JazzWax clip: You can hear Anderson's playing on Decade and his thinking behind the original tracks in a video clip directed and produced by Bret Primack...