An Interview with Conrad Herwig

By Bob Bernotas • January 01, 1999 • 23 min read

Conrad Herwig From Jack Teagarden's innovations in alternate positions and lip flexibility, to Lawrence Brown's supple, sublime lyricism; from J. J. Johnson's flawless appropriation of bebop articulation to Frank Rosolino's astounding range and speed, jazz trombonists have discovered ways to do what previously was considered "impossible" on their horns.

Likewise with Conrad Herwig. "When I was kid," he recalls, "I wanted to play John Coltrane tunes on the trombone. I remember when I was 18, 19, practicing Countdown and having a jazz teacher tell me, `There's no way anyone will ever play Countdown on the trombone. You might as well just give up.' But I'm kind of stubborn that way, and if someone says I can't do something then I'm gonna try to do it."

Herwig gained his first professional experience in the late 1970s while at North Texas State, playing in nearby Dallas with pianist Red Garland. He left North Texas in 1981 to tour with the big bands of Clark Terry and, later, Buddy Rich. Since then, Herwig has handled gigs with, among others, Slide Hampton's World of Trombones, Toshiko Akiyoshi's New York Jazz Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Henry Threadgill, Dave Liebman, and, in the Latin field, Mario Bauz∑, Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, and currently, Eddie Palmieri's Afro-Caribbean-jazz inferno.

That Herwig has won the attention of such a broad range of leaders is easy to understand. While so many young musicians seem obsessed with reviving the past, Conrad Herwig is actively exploring the future of jazz. He is a trombonist for the twenty-first century, and he's here today.

What do you mean by your term, "twenty-first century trombone playing?"

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.

I've tried to study the technical advances of the trombone, because imitation is an important step, but not the final step. Really, to integrate is what we're talking about. And integration comes from following the footsteps of people on your instrument and finding innovations of other instruments, and trying to integrate and graft. For example, when you graft an orange and a tangerine you get a tangelo. So if you graft modern trombone style with the harmonic and melodic elements of, say, some of the more modern jazz players, then that's what I'm looking at.

So for you, trombonists are an important influence, but not the only influence.

Exactly. I think that people limit themselves if they just use influences on their own instrument. For example, I think all jazz players--and I say this a lot--all of us need to listen to vocalists, study vocalists, because vocalists deal with the melody itself. That's their sonic field, the melody. Nobody sings a ballad like Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra. So we should all go back and analyze vocalists. Really, we're talking about integrating things that normally aren't considered "trombonistic" into your playing. Then you don't sound like all the other trombone players. I think everyone is looking to find their own personal voice and to go with their own personal taste. If you can do that, then you won't sound like everybody else.

Could you say a few words about Frank Rosolino and why he was such an important trombonist?

Well, Frank Rosolino was a unique individual in a lot of ways. Technically speaking, you could say he's probably, in the time line, a little bit later than J. J.. He was coming up in Detroit in the '40s, when J. J. had already moved to New York and was playing with Bird. Technically he had a startling range, fluidity, and the ability to express his ideas on a phenomenal level. I mean, I always make the joke that when you look at a transcribed Rosolino solo it looks more like a harp solo or a violin solo than a trombone solo. I think his brother was a violinist. His brother would practice in the next room and Frank used to try to cop his ideas. See, when he first started playing the trombone, he didn't know that those things couldn't be done on the trombone. And I think that's the way a lot of people who start innovating on their instruments are. They don't know it's "hard." He had an amazing ability to recreate his inner ear in reality, and so on the trombone he was doing things that physically weren't considered possible.

Now the difference between J. J. and Frank, to me, is that J. J. has more of a step-wise, linear thing, and a more architectonic approach to the music. By "architectonic" I mean "architecture of sound." Frank used a more spontaneous stream of consciousness, with wider leaps and more intervals. I'm not saying Frank was less compositional. I just think with J. J., his solos seem like finished compositions and Frank's solos are so incredibly spontaneous sounding. J. J.'s playing is, as well, spontaneous, but Frank just had this startling approach with huge intervallic leaps, use of a lot of triplets, a lot of appoggiatura and different things.

So in some ways, then, Rosolino's playing was more "trombonistic" than J. J.'s playing.

Well, you're right. What happened with J. J., he basically defied the harmonic series, in a sense. People were always saying, "Well, that sounds like a valve trombone," when J. J. would play. What Frank did, Frank took the harmonic series and utilized the fact that you could play triads and dominant-seventh chords in one position. (Like, in first position, you go Bb, D, F, Ab, in second position, A, C#, E, G, etc). He utilized that, along with multiple tonguing technique, and so he was within the horn, in a certain sense. But he took the horn to an exponential level as far as utilizing the harmonic series. But when I say that J. J. defied the harmonic series, I really mean it. And they're both, on their own level, huge breakthroughs.

And that's why J. J. really came into his own once modal playing became prominent in jazz, since that was perfectly suited to his approach to the trombone.

Rosolino's playing used a lot of the harmonic series in thirds and fourths, that's really bebop. And if you want to know the truth, as much as I love Frank's playing, you're right, the jump into modal-chromatic playing is really through step-wise playing. That's the difference between Carl Fontana's playing and Rosolino's playing. Carl has a really smooth, step-wise motion. So if you're trying to take a style of, like, John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, for example, their kind of modality, you can use the technique of J.J.'s or Carl Fontana's playing more than a guy like Rosolino, who's really grounded in a bebop style.

Although both work, because some of the ideas that Rosolino used intervallically, that's what Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw were doing later, using fourths and fifths. And really there it is: you can improvise using small intervals, like half-steps and whole steps, you can use fourths and fifths, and then you can use wider leaps. I mean, guys like Dave Liebman do this. Trane did this in some of his later stuff, a wider use of intervals, like jumping octaves, minor ninths, stuff like that. And also octave displacements. It sounds more pointillistic and it's a way of breaking up a chromatic line with wide intervals.

To take it one step further, if you think about it, why is the pentatonic so useful in jazz? What's great about the pentatonic scale? What makes it so motivic? What makes it stick in your ear?

One thing, it's a combination of whole steps and minor thirds. I'm talking right now about a minor pentatonic scale. For example, if the chord change was D minor, it would be D, F, G, A, C, D. What you're getting is minor third, whole step, whole step, minor third, whole step. It's very symmetrical. There're lots of interesting factors about pentatonic scales. They just seem to have a natural quality.

I haven't done an exhaustive historical analysis, and I'm sure there are musicologists that have, but it would be interesting to go back and figure out why in so many different cultures--Balinese gamalon music, Japanese folk music, Korean folk music, African folk music--why is the five-note scale so prevalent? What is it about that five-note scale that makes it so essential to human creativity? And also it seems to be the bridge from bebop into modal playing into what we would call modal-chromaticism and motivic and cellular playing, because the pentatonic is, basically, a cell. It's a five-note motive and it sticks in your ear. So then the so-called habit of going "inside" or "outside" really sets itself up.

It seems to me, in modern, modal-chromatic improvisation what you're trying to achieve is an equation that's universal: simple to complex, and back to simple. If you start complex, it doesn't give you anywhere to go. For example, there is a tune on my New York Breed CD, Code Mode, that centers around a Db minor tonality. Now, realistically the Db minor should be C# minor, if we say it enharmonically. I don't want to be into Fb's and all that stuff, so I'll just say C# minor. A C# minor pentatonic would be C#, E, F#, G#, B, and C#. So those are the inside pentatonic sounds. Well, what are we getting?

We're getting the root, we're getting the minor third, the natural eleventh, the fifth, the dominant seventh, and the root again. So you see that there are no non-harmonic tones. In other words, when you talk about inside playing, inside pentatonic playing means no non-harmonic tones. Now that same C# minor pentatonic, when played over an E major 7 chord, you're getting the thirteenth, root, ninth, third, fifth, and then the thirteenth again. Then when you go to D major 7, you're getting the major seventh, ninth, third, sharp eleventh, thirteenth, and then the major seventh again. So you're getting all the upper structure alterations over D major, and it's still inside the tonality. In other words, there are no so-called "outside" notes." So what sets itself up then is what I call "control of dissonance." You're controlling your alterations.

My solo on Code Mode basically consists of inside pentatonic sounds. And there's lots of little tricks you can use. There's a rule: if it's a minor seventh chord, say Db minor 7, you can play the minor pentatonic off the root (as I spelled it out before), the minor pentatonic off the fifth (Ab, Cb, Db, Eb, Gb, Ab), or the minor pentatonic off the ninth (Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, Db, Eb), and have no "wrong" notes. That is, there'll be no non-harmonic tones. Really, we want to get away from saying there are "wrong" notes, because there are basically no wrong notes anyway. Nothing is wrong, it's only contextual and the way you harness, the way you control, dissonance. Some people might think, "Well, that's an intellectual approach." The thing, though, is that there's a duality in jazz soloing, just like in life, between the intuitive and the intellectual. You have to train your intuition by your intellect. In other words, what really matters the most is what sounds good, but you use your brain to figure out what sounds good.

Now, there are no hard and fast rules. There are just what I call "jumping-off points," points of departure. If you figure out the inside pentatonic sounds those are pretty obvious, because what we're talking about is no non-harmonic tones. Now, once you start using non-harmonic tones, or so-called outside playing, that's basically what we call superimposition, which means superimposing a different tonality onto another tonality.

How would that work, let's say, over the Db minor tonality you're talking about here?

This goes back to some of the innovations of John Coltrane, for example, superimposing tonalities based on minor thirds. Let's say if you wanted to superimpose something on Db (or C#) minor, you could superimpose an E minor pentatonic (E, G, A, B, D, E), up a minor third. Or you could do a pattern utilizing minor thirds. You could do a Db minor pentatonic, an E minor pentatonic, a G minor pentatonic, and a Bb minor pentatonic, back to Db minor pentatonic, up in minor thirds.

A real common one, and this is one that you hear Coltrane do--and Dave Liebman has talked about this little pattern--would be Db minor pentatonic, then E minor pentatonic, then down a whole step to D minor pentatonic, then slide a half-step down back to Db minor pentatonic. What you have to realize is that all this time the bass is not going anywhere. The bass stays on Db minor 7. Now another super-crucial point is that you have to get sensitive comping from the rhythm section.

The word "comping" has come from the word "accompaniment," but really, I like to think of the word "comping" coming from the word "complement." For example, one thing that's necessitated is that the chords that are complementing the solo have to be more open-voiced, for example, in what we call "chordal voicings," chords voiced in fourths.

Why does that kind of voicing work better?

Let's say in this case it's Db minor or, enharmonically, C# minor. You have C#, F# and B natural. Well the thing is, you have the root, you have the eleventh, and you have the dominant seventh. But you don't have any other color tones in there. You have the dominant seventh, but you don't have the minor third. When the voicing is ambiguous, it gives you more of an opportunity to superimpose different things on top of it than if the chord was voiced C#, E, G#, B.

Then there would be no doubt about what chord it is.

Yeah. It's all there, and it can work almost as a handcuff.

Like I said, the word is really complement, and not only to the soloist. If we step away for the moment from pentatonics and just talk about soloing in general, you have to pick your spots. I mean, I don't always play pentatonics. For example, I just did this recording with Benny Golson where we did Killer Joe. Well, I didn't play modal-pentatonic-chromatic out stuff over my solo. I mean, if you're standing next to Benny Golson, you better be able to play at least some form or some facsimile of hard bop. So what you have to do is call your shots.

What I'm saying is that this style, used in the right context, can open you up. And if you want to start to come to grips with the innovations of the 1960s, then you have to know something about this modal-chromatic-pentatonic approach to playing. And there are a lot of aspects other than pure pentatonic playing. It's not just pentatonics. It happens to be modality. Studying really goes back to the ancient church modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian modes, which just happen to be major scales from the first step to the first step, second step to second step, etc. You have to know that. Pentatonics is a way of opening up those modes melodically and intervallically.

Then there's intervallic playing, using intervals and using motivic development, not just pentatonics. You can't just run scales. But it's a jumping-off place. Really the way I look at pentatonics, they're like tonal fields. Or it's like the artist's palette. For example, heavy artists, they don't just show up with a box of paint. They take a palette and they have the primary colors laid out and they have other colors all laid out. Before they've even touched the canvas they have their colors in order. So for us, we have our modes, we have pentatonics, we have chromatic approaches, which we're not really talking about here, either. Dave Liebman talks about the difference between tonal and atonal chromaticism and the use of non-harmonic sounds. It's all sort of spread out on a palette and we take and we create our solo the way an artist creates on a canvas. It's like a sonic canvas, and we have this tonal color and that tonal color, and our instrument is the brush. And we also use our sound.

Sometimes we have an airy sound. Sometimes we have a penetrating sound. Sometimes our sound is tender. If you're playing a ballad and you play really loud and rough and abrasive, it sounds out of context. And the same way if it's a burning up-tempo, real energy tune and you're playing really laid back and with a small sound, it's not contextual. We have to match it. So we're really like sonic artists. That's the way I look at it. But one thing I'm trying to stress is that you don't have to play like this exclusively. Nothing is exclusive.

You know, styles come and go. There's lots of styles. But the ability to expound or be fluent in musical ideas bridges styles. So what's the reason to check out this stuff? Well the reason is, you might get called for a gig and the cats are playing modal tunes. They're into a Coltrane bag. So if you don't know that, it limits you. The same way that if you don't know how to take a plunger solo on a Bb blues, it limits you from working there. So even for people who really want to pursue a particular thing, like they have their own gig and want to play bebop, the reason to check this out is to have another color on your palette.

The point is, it's not about scales. It's not about notes. It's not about licks. It's about transcending your own ego. It's about transcending your own desires. It's about expressing something inside of yourself that there's no other way to express other than on your instrument. For me, I'm really only myself when I'm playing my trombone.

At this point, I'd like you to talk a bit about John Coltrane and the influence he has had on you.

When we talked about that duality between intellect and intuition, John Coltrane used his intellect to train his intuitive improvisational nature to the highest degree that has yet been known. Ultimate technique. Ultimate control. But really, it actually boils down to ultimate freedom through ultimate discipline.

Coltrane is probably my biggest role model because he went from playing bebop with Dizzy Gillespie's band, to playing with Monk, playing with Miles, playing standards. He encompassed the blues language, what we would call "jazz common practice"--the ii-V-I language--modality in the early '60s, chromaticism, and along with guys like Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders and, of course, Ornette Coleman, created modern avant garde music in the jazz context. And there was nothing exclusive about Coltrane. He included all folk musics, Caribbean music, Brazilian music, African music, Indian music, Oriental musics, European musics. He dug classical. He dug everything. And not only did he dig it, he understood it and conceptualized it and then integrated it into his own playing.

He also had the ability to include spirituality in his playing. I think that's one thing that can't be lost. I wish I was about 20 years older, only for the sense that I could have seen a guy who was on this earth who encompassed all these styles and never stopped growing. You know, a lot of players could have taken a five-year period out of Coltrane's life and made an entire career out of it. Certain guys have. But Coltrane, every five to eight years, just kept changing up his playing. And sometimes even quicker than that. If you take, say, from '60-'61 until '67, I mean, it got to the point where he was changing up every 18 months or less. And who knows? People talk about music for the twenty-first century or they ask, "What would the new jazz be?" Obviously, it would have been whatever John Coltrane played on his next album. That is the music of the twenty-first century. Coltrane was there--he just happened to be there in the '60s.

On your current CD, The Latin Side of John Coltrane, you perform Trane's compositions in an Afro-Caribbean vein. Why did you choose to handle them in that way?

I've been playing Latin music since I was in school in Texas, when I used to play cumbia. Then when I moved to New York I started doing salsa gigs and I met [trumpeter] Victor Paz, who's from Panama, but moved to Venezuela. He took me to play with Mario Bauzá, and I appeared on Bauzá's album called Afro-Cuban Jazz, which included Paquito D'Rivera, Jorge Dalto, Claudio Roditi, of course Victor Paz, all kinds of percussionists, obviously, Patato Valdéz, Graciella. And through that I ended up playing with Paquito, playing with Eddie Palmieri, so I have this kind of Latin jazz heart and soul.

Coltrane had Afro-Latin influences himself. He was a student of world music, and the real common ground is Africa. And that's for all jazz music, for Latin music, and really for pop music today. I mean, modern twentieth-century pop music really goes back to Africa. And so, it wasn't too much of a stretch. For example, on a lot of the Coltrane songs, like "Africa," the bass line is in clave. A Love Supreme fits right into a medium Afro-Latin groove. I had heard these tunes and listened to them and worn out three copies of A Love Supreme and worn out Africa/Brass through the years, but I had still always thought of them in a jazz context.

But in rediscovering the music in what Eddie Palmieri calls an Afro-Caribbean point of view, it was like the veil was being lifted. Here was an actual link, a common heart and soul that Coltrane had to Africa and to the Caribbean rhythmic patterns.

And this recording really emphasizes the greatness of Coltrane as a composer.

One of the essences of this project was to capture his compositions, especially as vehicles for improvisation, which really is the nature of jazz composition. Compositions that have lasting value in jazz are compositions that allow a soloist to express his inner voice. You could have a beautiful, wonderful, through-composed tune that's so complex you can't solo over it. It doesn't end up in the repertoire of many jazz musicians.

For example, nobody plays Monk's Crepescule with Nellie, which is a remarkable composition, but everybody plays 'Round Midnight, because it's a much better vehicle for improvisation.

Right. And 'Round Midnight is a fairly complex tune, but the thing is that there's a natural--I always call it kinetic--energy, or an ebb and flow in the tune that's so natural that it allows itself as a vehicle. And so, you can have great compositions, but great vehicles for improvisation are what count in jazz.

It seems to me, at times, that people don't give Trane the total credit for composition, maybe because his playing was of such gigantic proportions. But if you made a top ten list of jazz compositions of the last half-century, I think "Naima" has to be on that list. And from a more technical point of view, his genre of substitution tunes, like Giant Steps, Countdown, Satellite, Moment's Notice, Lazy Bird have to be considered as musts for any jazz improvisor.

And then he shifted from the actual physical movement of the chords to superimposing them over pedal point. So for this project, one of the fundamental things was Trane's music as a composer in this sense, and the tunes were specifically picked because they would be conducive to an Afro-Caribbean setting. A lot of the tunes are based off a pedal point, off almost drone kinds of sonorities. For example, Africa, that's one chord. India, that's one chord. It gives you complete freedom within the tonality, and it's very similar to Afro-Caribbean music in that a lot of that music is one-chord or two-chord music. That's the whole principle of the montuno, sticking on a tonality and cycling. So it didn't seem like such a stretch.

It must have been a incredibly daunting task, taking on Coltrane's music in this way.

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.

In 1998 Herwig received a Grammy nomination in the "Latin Jazz" category for The Latin Side of John Coltrane (Astor Place), and also released a new recording, Heart of Darkness (Criss Cross). Since 1997 he has been performing with saxophonist Joe Henderson, while continuing to work with pianist Eddie Palmieri. An accomplished and sought-after clinician for Selmer Bach, Herwig also is president of the Frank Rosolino Memorial Fund and produced the book of solo transcriptions that accompanies the CD, Fond Memories of...Frank Rosolino (Double-Time).

© Bob Bernotas, 1996; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.