There’s been some attrition lately in the once routinely sold-out audience for the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra. But news travels fast in this scene: BCJO trombone player Shannon Gunn put word on the street last night that Wycliffe Gordon, international jazz trombonist extraordinaire, would be a special guest with the band last night. By the end of their first set, the club was about 80 percent full.
Gordon is something of a poster child for straight-ahead jazz trombone. He spent several years in Wynton Marsalis‘ septet, won multiple awards (most recently, he was selected as Best Trombonist in the Downbeat critics’ poll for the third consecutive year), and is now a popular booking around the U.S. and abroad. So it was quite a coup for the BCJO to have him in the ensemble, even if only for a night. And as you might expect, it was a trombone-focused performance, led off by a feature for Gordon on “Just Friends.” He took a quicksilver solo that skewed toward the higher register of his horn, and used a growling glissando that he hit hard as he rounded certain harmonic corners. He wasn’t alone even in that tune, though, as each trombonist—-Steve “Nature Boy” Shaw, Gunn, and bass trombonist Chris Buckley—-soloed in turn. The latter two ended up trading phrases and even engaging in some counterpoint.
Gordon did other tremendous work during that first set. He took another high-range solo on two choruses of “Perdido,” and made a loud, exuberant display on “You and the Night and the Music,” where he shifted the growls from a harmonic device to a delicious accent. He was a more-than-welcome addition to the Monday night proceedings.
What was most remarkable, though, is how much better than the rest of the BCJO he wasn’t. It might be expected that the big New York star would dwarf the locally grown musicians with his playing, and Gordon is one hell of a musician; it might be that he limited his technique for this context, but there’s plenty of reason to suspect that the D.C. players simply held their own.
Leigh Pilzer, a saxophonist’s saxophonist, had a feature of her own with “Broadway,” and killed it—-she had a sleek, carefully honed delivery that she delivered with both gusto and surprising restraint within that gusto. Griffin Kazmierczak (subbing for BCJO co-leader Joe Herrera) followed Gordon’s “Perdido” improv with one of his own on flugelhorn, keeping pace completely with the trombonist’s lyricism. In the meantime, his fellow flugelhornist Mike “Bags” Davis had a spotlight piece on “Autumn Nocturne.” He had a crying, piercing sound that coated the band like caramel. The ensemble accompanied him in a beautiful and rather sparse arrangement (courtesy of pianist Dan Roberts) that featured alternating parts for reeds and trombones, and enough space that the very soft guitar work from Michael Kramer was hauntingly effective.
All of which adds up to a world-class band that can stand up to a world-class soloist. So why are they not selling out the club right now? Which is to say, why aren’t you going out to Bohemian Caverns on Monday nights?