Michael Dease

The Other Shoe: The Music of Gregg Hill



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MUSIC REVIEW BY Ted Panken, All About Jazz


"Think of any big city," Greg Hill says, introducing the narrative armature of his composition, "The Other Shoe," the denouement and title track of this stimulating collaboration with Michael Dease, who arranged each of Hill's 10 compositions contained herein. "It's 2 in the morning, you're still awake, and your neighbor comes in upstairs. You hear the first clunk when his shoe hits the floor. Then you wait. He may be inebriated. It may take a while to get the other shoe off, but then it comes—and CLUNK. The first chord is mildly dissonant; the second chord more emphatically dissonant. Michael turned on his imagination and off they went."

In describing his response to "The Other Shoe," which unfolds deliberately over a 15-minute span, Dease focuses on Hill's predisposition to "develop small cells of melodic material"—in this instance, pedal points of G-dominant flat 9s over E-flats repeating back and forth." The two-time winner of DownBeat's Critics Poll for Trombonist of the Year continues: "I like that because it lets you dig in and stick with it. The simplicity makes me want to push myself to do things I'm uncomfortable doing or enter situations where I'm restless so I can challenge myself to make something fun and exciting happen. I told the band. 'Let's not have any rules. Let's not set any chorus lengths. Let's all listen to each other and when it feels right, let's push each other places.'"

It's a credit to Dease and Hill alike that this flexible, in-the-moment perspective infuses the entirety of the recital. Towards attaining that quality, Dease—whose 15-album discography includes nine well-mapped-out, radio-friendly dates for Posi-Tone with high-profile personnel—recruited a band of up-and-comers with low Q-scores and huge talent, along with piano giant Geoffrey Keezer, who performs on six selections.

"Two things are happening on this album," Dease explains. "One is that my dream, both currently and when I was a young musician, is to be a torchbearer for my predecessors and ancestors in the way l've done for Posi-Tone, so that their contributions continue to mean something to people my age and younger. I absolutely adore being straight-ahead and mainstream in that sense. But being able to stretch, to go wherever I want without boundaries or historical impositions, is also part of that lineage. Part of being straight-ahead is thinking of the future and carrying the present with you."

Dease grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where he was an all-state saxophonist before switching to trombone at 17. He matriculated at Juilliard in 2000 at the suggestion of his mentor, trombone giant and LCJO alumnus Wycliffe Gordon, a fellow Augustan, who told me ten years back that Dease "has a personality that can take in a lot right away." Dease deployed that attribute when constructing a style that refracts into his own argot vocabulary absorbed from an across the timeline influence tree that served him well during New York years on engagements with the big bands of Illinois Jacquet, Christian McBride, Charles Tolliver, and Roy Hargrove, and with the Heath Brothers and Claudio Roditi, among others.

While the 40-vear-old trombonist's career blossomed early on, Hill was a late bloomer, an autodidact who started writing music seriously in 1984, when he was 39. While supporting his family, he was still able to devote quality time to study "every theory book I could get my hands on" and use "my ear to take me somewhere with the music and express my feelings and ideas." In 2017, he published 81 of his tunes in two volumes, titled Outrospectives and Spontaneity: another 80 pieces appear in Moonducks (2019) and The Tuning Fork (2021).

On the material, Dease comments: "This is the first project I've done of entirely someone else's compositions. I feel good about it because the songs are strong. Every composition has a clear path and a point—the bass line, or the harmonic sequence, or a signature in the rhythmic riff, or a syncopated thing—that gives each song a unique identity. These elements make it fun to produce and arrange the material, to connect my creative originality to his pieces."

Seeking to operate within a less-traveled sonic palette, Dease reached out to 29-year-old Toronto-based clarinetist Virginia MacDonald to share the front line. "I saw her play on some YouTube videos, and it was like a lightning bolt, he says. "I liked the subtlety of her attack; the notes pop out like they do when the great clarinetists play, but she puts a certain caress on the notes like the great saxophone players do."

The Curriculum Vitae of bassist Liany Mateo, an MSU alumna, includes a World Music Masters Degree from Danilo Pérez's Global Jazz Institute, and engagements with various Keezer and Dease-led units as well as Arturo O'Farrill's Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. "She's solid as a rock, with a thoughtful approach to note choice and register and tone," Dease remarks. "She doesn't play things arbitrarily, and she brings sensitivity as well as grit."

Presently on faculty at University of South Carolina, powerful drummer Colleen Clark projects what Hill calls "that cutting edge New York vibe." "Ive been trying for 15 years to find the right project to call her for," Dease says. "I wanted someone who wasn't super familiar with my playing, who could make bold decisions and take chances, and has a lot of different techniques to draw upon—good brush technique, great cymbal tone, a dynamic sense of contour and phrasing."

Luther Allison—who plays piano on the four pieces generated on the second day of the session—played drums on Dease's 2016 PosiTone album Father Figure and piano on his 2018 PosiTone album Reaching Out. "Luther has deep roots. He goes all the way back and all the way forward—you can tell he's listened to Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. He can take things in very unusual directions. He has great maturity and patience for a musician his age."

In an interesting cross-generational convergence, both Allison, 27, and Keezer, 52, were mentored early on by the iconic pianist-educator Donald Brown. "Geoffrey was particularly important for me because he's able to go so many places with authenticity and he's sensitive in supporting different players' styles," says Dease, who became close to Keezer on tours with David Sanborn in recent years. "During the session, he processed and listened and adapted to the myriad of shapes and contours of the songs. He glued us together with his musicianship."

As examples of Keezer's magic, consider what he does on the paired tracks "The Sleeper" and "The Classic." Hill "stretched out as far as I could stretch" in composing the former piece, comprised, in Dease's words, of a "melody in 15" and "wide, sweeping chords, and ascending voicings," which Keezer "plays exactly as Gregg wrote" before launching a far-flung solo. Hill continues: "It's a difficult tune, and I thought nobody would want to touch it. But Michael's genius wanted to dig into the material and apply his own creative stamp."

Conversely, on "The Classic," which Hill calls "a brief statement as simple as pie," Dease and MacDonald repeat the four-bar melody, two chords back and forth, eight times, embellishing it more each time "to bring out more dynamics and capture a different angle on the melody." There follows a harp-like ascending 16th note line that morphs into another florid, cogent Keezer variation.

Keezer also shines soloistically on "Scooter's Dream," a restless, consonant-to-dissonant fantasia that Hill conceived as analogous to the subconscious conjurations of his sleeping cat. It follows the date's leadoff piece, "Wake-Up Call," a Monk-meets-Mingus flavored line so titled for the ANNH-ANNH at the end of the form, evoking the early morning alarm clock embedded in the quotidian routine of musicians on the road.

A pair of blues tunes follow "Scooter's Dream." "Hello, Blues" is a minor blues that unfolds from a somber three-note refrain, with interpolative bass solos by Mateo first, then Whitaker. As a dirge/blues blend, the suggestion is that the blues has a universal quality to it. In contrast, "The Goodbe Blues"—which features Allison on piano—reflects the blues as jubilant exorcism. Dease plays baritone saxophone after trading on trombone with his student, Joel Perez, who also solos effectively on the ebulliently danceable "Rio Mio."

Allison also performs on "Summer Night," which Dease relates to visits to the Nuyorican Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side—not far from Hill's residence in the late 1960—to hear poetry and spoken word performances punctuated by musical interludes.

The lilting swing of "Shorty's Tune," a nickname for Hill's mother, a "jitterbug star" in her youth, propels Keezer—who comps masterfully for tender solos by Mateo and MacDonald—into a nuanced, poetic statement. Both harmonically and rhythmically, it channels the feel of late 1950 Duke Ellington tunes that juxtaposed the clarinet voices of Jimmy Hamilton or Russell Procope with Ellington's individualistic trombonists.

Like the entire album, the track reflects Hill's "formula—to let the artists interpret my tunes as they will, as long as they don't do something contrary to the tune's spirit." He continues: "I'm trying to create melodic movement and tell a story, a visual image. That's key to everything. State the melody clearly, then do whatever you want with the arranging—just stay true to the material. A genius like Michael can do that type of arranging and put this type of band together. That's gold."





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