Last Wednesday night, the place to be in Saint Louis was Webster University's Music Annex. In this humble concert hall nestled in the trees behind a vast Tudor-style home, a capacity crowd was treated to an unforgettable set of hot jazz. Trombone-leader Charlie Halloran fronted his sextet to culminate his studies at the university, but this was no average senior recital.
Only recently has Charlie reached legal drinking age, but he’s been playing in bars and appearing on records for years. His collaborations include big names like trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, regional heroes such as Soulard Blues Band, John Norment Quartet, Secret Cajun Band, Ambiguous "They," Lauren Gray's 5-Piece Bucket, Matt McGaughey, Gumbohead, and The Postals. Favorite past gigs include his own Astor Piazzolla tango quartet and an authentic brass band second-line parade at a millionaire's wedding. While studying abroad, Charlie also played with numerous jazz heavies on the European circuit. He is a student of Jim Martin and Paul DeMarinis. So, for his crowd of dedicated fans, Charlie’s musical proficiency was a forgone conclusion. This graduation requirement was just a good excuse for us to hear him jam.
The youngest member of a musical family, Charlie was always on hand at his brothers' gigs, but this concert was undeniable proof he has come into his own. He certainly looked the part of a jazz veteran: clean-shaven (as opposed to his unruly red beard,) dressed in a double-breasted Brooks Brothers suit, French cuffs, and triple-Windsor tie. His explanation was simple, "you gotta look sharp if you're gonna play standards." Whatever, Wynton. Just play that thing.
Charlie is one of those special jazz musicians who have absorbed the best aspects of academic learning and real-life journeyman experience. I'll save space by saying right off: each of Charlie's trombone solos was incredible. But then, I suppose that’s the point of a senior recital. What’s unique for such a young player is his impressive network of top-notch musician friends from which he assembled sidemen.
Pianist Nick Schleuter is a sincere bebop practitioner with an added West Coast playful edge, ala Vince Guaraldi. Occasionally, when swept up by the music, Schleuter lets out an unintelligible guttural shout. Though the habit can be somewhat distracting; Monk, Bud, and Jarrett are remembered for the same thing. Those seated closest to him were treated to some fine performances, but the piano was unfortunately overpowered throughout most of the room.
The concert took off in high gear with Juan Tizol's 1932 composition "Caravan," a beloved jewel of Ellingtonia. However, this hard-bop version was painstakingly transcribed from a 1962 Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers record. The difficult arrangement required deft performances from all, but especially the front line: Charlie on trombone, Paul Shanker on tenor sax, and Sandy Roll on trumpet.
Secondly, Charlie presented the familiar Wayne Shorter tune "Children of the Night," complete with original three horn harmonies. Bassist Justin DiCenzo started the song with a brief solo, reprised later with even more dazzle. The sax and trombone solos were particularly extended and imaginative. While observing the drummer’s intensity, one wonders if Savage is his legal name or rather a stage moniker. His fluid polyrhythms were applied magnificently to each arrangement. I asked him afterwards if he’s a student, and he informed me he’s a second-semester freshman! These guys seem too young to be so good, but then so were many of the original jazz giants when they created this stuff.
"In Love In Vain" by Jerome Kern came next, arranged along the lines of the Jazztet’s solid mid-tempo cool version from 1962. Roll sat this one out, thus creating a quintet. Shanker blew another exploratory solo, and then Charlie took a turn, followed by a really hard-swinging rhythm section break. This backing trio could hold its own against some of the best. With an awe-inspiring walking bass line, DiCenzo ushered the horns back for a gorgeous ensemble passage. The slow, warm, rich harmonies were somehow reminiscent of jazz's African roots.
As any serious jazz student knows, Charlie's recital would have been incomplete without some classic Coltrane. "Moment's Notice" from the seminal 1957 Blue Train record was an appropriate choice since it was Trane's only three-horn session utilizing trombone. Without a hint of fear, Charlie stepped into Curtis Fuller's shoes, and Roll rejoined the sextet to channel Lee Morgan scorching trumpet solos. The quartz-precision back line framed Shanker's hot breaks with simultaneous silences. This bold and relentless reading was a fitting tribute to jazz masters.
The classic "Bourbon Street Parade" was by far the most accessible and flamboyant song of the night. For just a little while, everyone in the room was transported to the Big Easy for a real-live carnival experience. Paul Barbarin, the legendary New Orleans drummer and founder of the Onward Brass Band, wrote this celebratory standard. Even Roll assumed an uncharacteristic Southern swagger on his solo. Mmmm hmmm, brother!
Charlie recently asked New Orleans pianist Thaddeus Richard about a successful career in jazz. Richard thought for a minute and quipped, "Boy, you picked the wrong instrument." All due respect, Sir, but we'll have to agree to disagree. You obviously haven’t heard what we heard last night.
The final number left Charlie fully exposed, accompanied by the lovely and amazing pianist Chiann-Yi Yawitz. "Concertino d’Hiver" is a Darius Milhaud composition for trombone and piano in three movements. In case any "real musicians" in the hall had written him off as just another hot jazz soloist, Charlie proved his formal chops on this challenging (if somewhat academic) Neo-Classical work. Written in 1953, Milhaud was admittedly influenced by en vogue aspects of ragtime and jazz. Surely, he would have been pleased by the tremendous range of Charlie’s technical, musical, and emotional interpretation. Charlie’s lyrical high-end even rivals that of Tommy Dorsey or Jimmy Knepper. The second movement introduced his adept mute skills; the third movement required some of the most dexterous slide work anyone had ever heard. If I hadn't seen his trombone slide moving so wildly, I'd swear he was playing a valve instrument. His timing, articulation, and intonation are that clean.
Jazz fans frequently complain about our music's decline, at least in terms of mass popularity. For those who place their hope in new artists capable of interpreting and furthering this timeless art: rest assured. Charlie Halloran, for one, is here to stay. And you can say you knew him when
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.