When reviewing a new album, I usually give some background about the musical history of the artist, but I seldom dig too deeply into other aspects of their life. However, Trombone Heaven – Vancouver 1978, a new release from Uptown Records that showcases a live performance by trombone masters Frank Rosolino and Carl Fontana, has an association that would be tough to ignore. That being said, it’s probably best to get it out of the way right now.
Rosolino was a talented fixture in many of the big bands beginning in the post-war years, with a résumé that included service with Glen Gray, Gene Krupa, and Stan Kenton, among others. Working with Kenton led to many other high profile musical associations over the next couple of decades, until his death in late 1978 — shortly after recording the contents of this album.
Deeply troubled for years, Rosolino had already experienced the suicide of his third wife a few years earlier, but his friends were nonetheless shocked when he shot himself to death in November of 1978 — after first shooting his two young sons. One died and the other was blinded for life, adding more layers to what was already a tragedy.
Thankfully, the other half of the duo, Carl Fontana, had a long and successful career until his death of natural causes in 2003. He too started with the big bands, but didn’t get much notice until the 1950’s and his appearances with Woody Herman. Later he joined Stan Kenton and also spent some time in Kai Winding’s trombone band, further building his name.
But let’s get to the music. It was recorded in August of 1978 at the Bayside Room in Vancouver, B.C., and in addition to the two stars, featured Elmer Gill on piano, bassist Torban Oxbol, and drummer George Ursan. There are only six tracks on the album but all are extended pieces so total time is something like 79 minutes. The tunes offered are all standards, but in each case the musicians turn them into jam sessions, with sparkling improvisations the order of the day.
At that time these guys were two of the best trombonists around, accomplished veterans with the confidence to play to their strengths. Rosolino was the ultimate technician, with the ability to play quick and crisp, dazzling listeners with his skill. Fontana was every bit his equal but was more subdued and soulful. As unlikely as it might seem, they meshed perfectly.
The first track is a medley on “Here’s That Rainy Day/Stardust,” and it’s a perfect example of how to open an album. It presents the listener with Rosolino’s rip-roaring trip through the early part, followed by Fontana soothingly taking over in the late stages, a microcosm of the album as a whole.
I also enjoyed the medley on “Laura/Embraceable You,” which features Fontana first, in a smooth and soft version of “Laura” that rivals the classic J.J. Johnson sound, while Rosolino takes over the second part with his energetic notes. Another good listen was Dizzy Gillispie’s “Ow,” which closes the album by featuring the two stars playing off each other while taking some risks.
Two masters of an instrument that’s been a part of jazz history for generations, and although there are still solo practitioners around, there’s little doubt that the golden age of the trombone is long gone. If you’d like to hear what it once was, this is the album for you.
1 Here’s That Rainy Day/Stardust 11:07
2 Well, You Needn’t 16:31
3 All Blues 15:33
4 Just Friends 13:10
5 Laura/Embraceable You 9:33
6 Ow 13:13