Conrad Herwig

(b. November 1, 1959 Lawton, Oklahoma, USA)
by Mark Allred

“But the great thing about jazz is that nothing is so sacred that it can’t be recomposed and reinvented and rediscovered.”  – Conrad Herwig

New York jazz trombonist Conrad Herwig has recorded over 19 albums as a leader.  (Maybe more by the time you read this.) In 2009 his CD release “The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter” on Half Note Records, was nominated for a Grammy Award.  This is the follow-up project to the 2005 Grammy -nominated CD, “Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis”, and the 1998 Grammy-nominated CD, “The Latin Side of John Coltrane”. These projects feature special guests Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Valentin and Brian Lynch. His most recent solo recordings on the CrissCross label are “A Jones for Bones Tones”, “Obligation”, “Land of Shadow”, “Hieroglyphica”, “Unseen Universe”, “Osteology”, and “Heart of Darkness” which received 4½ stars in DownBeat Magazine. He has also been voted #1 Jazz Trombonist (TDWR) in the 2002 Downbeat Jazz Critic’s Poll.

More often than not the caliber of music can be determined by the company the musician keeps. In constant demand as a sideman, Herwig has been a featured member in the Joe Henderson Sextet, Horace Silver Octet, Tom Harrell’s Septet and Big Band, and the Joe Lovano Nonet (featured as a soloist on Lovano’s Grammy Award winning “52nd St Themes”). Conrad also performs and records with Eddie Palmieri’s “La Perfecta II” and Afro-Caribbean Jazz Octet, Paquito D’Rivera’s Havana-New York Connection, the Mingus Big Band (often serving as musical director, and arranger on the 2007 Grammy nominated “Live at the Tokyo Blue Note”). In other big band settings Conrad has also performed with Clark Terry, Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis & Quincy Jones, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Tito Puente, and Mario Bauza, having recorded well over 200 albums in his 30+ year career.  Was Dizzy Gillespie with the United Nation Orchestra not mentioned?  “When I was playing with Mario Bauza and Dizzy Gillespie in concerts,” recalls Herwig, “that’s when I met Paquito D’Rivera, Claudio Roditi and Eddie Palmieri.

His scholastic achievements read like the pedigree of an award winning show dog. Conrad Herwig is an alumnus of North Texas State University in Denton, Texas (where he performed in the One O’Clock Jazz Lab Band), Goddard College in Plainfield, VT, (Bachelor of Arts in Afro-Caribbean ethnomusicology), and Queens College, CUNY, (Master of Arts, Jazz Studies).  The One O’Clock Jazz Lab Band had such a reputation in the mid-to late1970’s that there were actual accounts of jazz-hungry enthusiasts getting off work on a weekday, driving over 150 miles just to see a portion of their concert, and then driving back home the same night to be at work the next morning. It was in North Texas that he first cut his chops with Salsa and Tejano bands. Conrad has conducted master classes, seminars, and workshops at major universities and conservatories around the world including the Sibelius Academy, Finland; the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin; the University of Koln, Germany; Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY; the University of Southern California and literally hundreds of others.

Herwig is a recipient of performance and teaching grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  One of the most in-demand jazz educators, he is currently Professor of Jazz Trombone, Jazz Improvisation, and Jazz Comp/Arr at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  Conrad was elected to the Board of Advisors of the International Trombone Association for a second time in 2006. Attention all parents: if you have children wanting to enroll in band activities at school you should stop worrying about the yesterday connotations (heroin addiction, skid row, and suicide) associated with jazz musicians and start contributing to the college fund. Educational grants alone will not be enough.

Some of Conrad’s earlier releases sound more like traditional jazz in a big band genre. “The Latin Side of John Coltrane” is not 1960’s traditional jazz.  On this release he does not mimic the recognized trombones from the past.  This is not a mirror image of Coltrane bebop. It almost sounds like a Willie Colon album without vocals.  Perhaps a better title would have been The Latin Side of Conrad Herwig: spice and seasonings by Coltrane. Coltrane buffs will savor the Coltrane immediately but anyone else might not pick up on the pinch of flavor if they were not expecting it.  So, perhaps the designated title is quite serving after all.  Conrad’s trombone is not cast as a mere member of the blasting horn section so essential to some Latin music. Instead, his bone transitions with a subtle flute, persistent trumpet or piano and thumping bass, often until the solos intermingle only to leave one to pick up where the other left off.

“Versatility,” notes Conrad “is built at times out of necessity. We live in a musical time where, if you can’t cover different genres you may not be able to make a living. (The reality is) the term jazz has broadened.”  This can be observed from the wide variety of musical styles performed by musicians he has recorded or played with live.

“The technology of trombone playing has advanced to the point where basically anything that can be played, can be played on the trombone. So really what I’m talking about are the harmonic innovations of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, of the late twentieth century, specifically from guys like John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and others. That stuff can all be dealt with within the limits of the trombone technique.

So I think today’s generation of trombonist not only loves the lineage and heritage of the trombone, but is interested in the harmonic and melodic innovations not only of late twentieth-century jazz players, but also of late twentieth-century classical music. But really technique isn’t the end in itself. Technique is purely a means of expressing the musical idea that you’re trying to get across. The quantitative aspects of it, just being able to play high, fast, loud, whatever, really don’t mean anything to me, or they only mean as much as the expression that I can get out of it. That’s what it is, the expression of a musical idea. And so, I think in a trombone context what we’re talking about is just liberating the instrument technically. And really it’s been a forty- or fifty-year process. J. J. Johnson was the first. He was like what you’d call a neurosurgeon of the trombone. I mean, he was the first cat to really take it and play the instrument on a level of technique like Charlie Parker. And then, of course, guys along the way, like Frank Rosolino, Slide Hampton, Carl Fontana, who are my favorites, also helped liberate the instrument”, says Conrad explaining his ideas on technique.

In my humble opinion, cover songs or tribute albums are difficult to pull off and, with the exceptions of artists like Joe Cocker or Herbie Hancock, usually just sound like weaker versions of the original song or a Muzak elevator adaptation.  Like Cocker, Herwig can make someone else’s song sound like one of his own with a personal attachment.  In the “Latin Side” he keeps the continuity of each Coltrane composition while his complex engine tune-up alters the vehicle for improvisation into a mean clean driving machine. I am now anxious to hear the other “Latin Side”s from Conrad Herwig.  I admit this is odd indeed for me because I have never really enjoyed listening to trombone all that much. Not only that, but now this same person is messing with the masters which I would normally deem sacrilegious… but I like it. Like it, yes I do.

Again, in interview Conrad Herwig speaks volumes with few words — “When you hear people talking about Trane, of course it was before my time, but there was a man who was a true giant. And I really, from the bottom of my heart, felt that I had to undertake this project with humility. It is scary, but I know that I approached it seriously. There’s no way you can do a project of Coltrane’s music, and especially to try to dig inside it for these Afro-Latin influences, without total awe, total wonder at his genius. And also, if you approach it casually, then you’re messing with something that’s sacred. You can’t mess with Trane. You just cannot. And I think you can tell the people who aren’t approaching him from an introspective, spiritual level. It’s dangerous to your musical psyche. I mean for me, it was like a real catharsis, a metamorphosis for my soul, just to listen to Trane’s music and try to figure out how to play it. The only thing I can say is that I made an honest effort. I made a sincere effort, and that’s all you can do.”

Bibliography and resources:

  1. © RadJazzMusic, All Rights Reserved
  2. – Online Trombone Journal, “An Interview with Conrad

Herwig” by Bob Bernotas

  1.“The Latin Side of Conrad Herwig” by Terry Perkins
  2. May 2007 “Conrad Herwig: Sketches of Salsa” by David French

Conrad Herwig

From the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazzfest ’98. Featuring: Conrad Herwig – trombone Brian Lynch – trumpet Edsel Gómez – piano Paoli Mejias – “conga” Phil Vieux – baritone Robby Ameen – drums

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