Martin McCain: Shades
Kairo Music

Martin McCain: Trombone Czar: The Extended Version
Kairo Music

Not for the first time, we find that old “Those who can't do, teach” saw soundly challenged: yes, Martin McCain is a teacher, specifically an Associate Professor of Trombone at Texas State University (where he directs the Trombone Choir and Jazz Trombone Ensembles), but he can also play, and exceptionally well at that. Certainly Shades and Trombone Czar: The Extended Version leave little doubt that he possesses commanding technical facility as a bass trombonist. This four-time Global Music Awards recipient regularly performs as a soloist and in chamber and orchestral contexts (the San Antonio Symphony and Austin Symphony but two of the orchestras with which he's affiliated), and he's also the leader of the jazz trombone ensemble JazzBonez and member of the Minor 4th Trombone Quartet.

But that's hardly the only thing these recordings have going for them. Two additional things in particular speak strongly on their behalf: there's first of all a stylistically broad approach that sees set-lists grounded in classical music yet venturing beyond it to include blues, tangos, and ragtime; and secondly diverse arrangements that feature McCain variously accompanied by piano, trumpet, soprano saxophone, and trombone ensemble. There's certainly nothing tentative about his playing: he executes the material on both discs with conviction, and his attack is agile and his sound robust. His primary accompanist on the recordings is his wife, pianist Artina McCain, an excellent player in her own right who provides sympathetic support throughout.

Shades features material by Carl Maria Von Weber (“Romance,” which alternates between ponderous and stately episodes) and Rachmaninoff (his ruminative “Prelude in A-Flat Major”), but it also includes new compositions, though new in this case doesn't mean twelve-tone serialism, post-modern, or avant-garde (the setting that's closest in spirit to such styles is Pierce Gradone's “Brassploitation,” a bold set-piece the McCains render with no small amount of intensity). McCain's selections are rooted in tonally harmonic traditions, strongly melodic, and often lyrical. In addition, the set-list augments the classical pieces with Latin-flavoured material and samples a number of other genres, too.

As the opener, Retratos for Bass Trombone and Piano by Costa Rican composer Vinicio Meza works well at establishing the recording's open-ended tone. Over the course of four movements, the McCains take a dramatic tour through Spain (“A La Espanola”), pause for a romantic stop (“Vals”), surrender to wistful reflection (“Cancion Sin Palabras”), and even strut a funkier R&B side (“Blues”). Trumpeter Kyle Koronka joins the McCains on Pastorale, a lovely, plaintive piece by Cleveland-born American composer Eric Ewazen that's distinguished by a spirit of stately affirmation and Copland-esque tone. As ear-catching is Swiss-American composer Daniel Schnyder's Tales of Another Time, an energized, Klezmer-like duet that sees soprano saxist Todd Oxford and McCain coiling serpentine lines around one another. Shades is capped with bluesy romps (Ragtime Fantasy and Tango Nuevo) by David Wilborn that complement the project's spirit.

As its title indicates, Trombone Czar: The Extended Version is an updated version of an earlier release, in this case McCain's first EP Trombone Czar: Russian Treasures for Bass Trombone Recorded Live! Of the nine tracks, four are live performances from 2011 and 2012, one is a re-master of Shades' Rachmaninoff selection, and four are premiere recordings of Russian music for bass trombone and trombone ensemble. Of the composers featured, Alexey Lebedev is represented by three pieces, Rachmaninoff by two, and Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Alexandre Tcherepnin one apiece.

As solid as the live performances by the McCains are, the pieces that have the greatest impact are those featuring the bass trombonist with the trombone ensemble, the combination of which makes for a remarkably sonorous presentation. Hearing him accompanied by an eight-member collective is a treat, especially when the music assumes such weight and dimensionality when so many trombones are heard together. The power of their collective voices is evident even when the piece in question is subdued (“Song of the Viking Guest” from Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko), and the instrument's subtly mournful quality is accentuated when its number is multiplied. Of all the pieces featuring the ensemble, it's the penultimate piece, Lebedev's Concert Allegro, that is perhaps the most striking for being so luscious-sounding, though the bluster of Mussorgsky's “Varlaam's Drinking Song” (Boris Godunov) is memorable, too. Obviously, both recordings will appeal strongly to trombone lovers, but the multi-dimensional set-lists and arrangements on these releases suggest that they're capable of appealing to more than just a single passionate group.

February 2016