You probably gathered from the band name, Manhattan Bones, where they’re from and what they play. But you probably wouldn’t have guessed that four trombonists (doubling on various low-brass) with a three-piece rhythm section would sound so good and, well, not weird. While Tribute is an admittedly academic project by a novel ensemble, the choice to cover well-loved standards by "brass masters" is the secret of its success. When presented with songs this familiar, you are left with no choice but to focus on specific performances, subconsciously comparing them to the original arrangements all the while. You have to hand it to leader/arranger Scott Reeves; it takes courage (or worse, hubris) to revisit songs we could all hum from memory. Manhattan Bones’ resulting sound is rich and full, well conceived and beautifully performed, a fitting tribute indeed.
With "Shutter-bug", the boys stomp right in like cocky prizefighters showing-off for the crowd. BUH, bum, BUH, bum, Bah-DAH and so on.... you can’t help but suspend your disbelief. Partly due to the low-register instrumentation, Manhattan Bones nonetheless produce a much bigger impression than you’d expect from seven live musicians. Reeves is a true professional, fully in control of his medium. His arrangements make smart use of unison and harmony, a balance of written and improvised passages, and irresistibly syncopated fanfares atop a hard-swing beat. The rhythm section is equal to the task as well. Drummer Andy Watson is undoubtedly a top NYC jazz drummer, displaying immense skill and discernment that only comes from years of playing with diverse jazz greats. Pianist Jim Ridl’s Latin-tinged licks and bassist Mike McGuirk’s tireless walking lines add delicious spice to Tribute. Folks, there’s nothing wrong with this jazz.
Just who is this tribute to, you ask? None other than J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans and his trombonist Jimmy Knepper (the entire project is laced with Evan’s distinctive "bottomy" sonorities), Duke Ellington and his valve trombonist Juan Tizol, Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry and Bob Brookmeyer. The nine-song set is rounded out by two original compositions, condensed down from Reeves’ well-respected big band arrangements.
The only real complaint debatable and forgivable though it may be is the disc’s overall recording quality. Jazz fans are notoriously divided over the "quality" of such all-digital productions. Perhaps it’s wrong to fault something for being too perfect, but this critic would prefer a little more natural ambiance and reflection. It sounds like they used mid-grade microphones and stock preamps with tons of compression, and spent all the time they wanted punching-in parts. Maybe not, I could be wrong. It’s just that the best historical jazz recordings are wonderfully rough, with wide dynamic range and tons of bleed. I digress.
Tribute is trombone music at its most lyrical and most daring. Get it now if you love that "sweet and low-down" sound.
-David Seymour is a freelance jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.