Trombonist Don Immel is many things; a puzzle with many pieces all contributing to a complete instrumentalist. Some define him as an educator, others key into his musicianship, along with the characterizations as writer/arranger/producer/composer. Mr. Immel is a professional with a single element that separates his existence; his revivalist dedication to the purity of the sound.
"Long Way Home," the intro-spin and title cut of his new CD, defines his soothing feel and reveals a sense of intimacy with the trombone. The tone is saintly, invoking the ghosts of past masters. The classical texture is by plan, for as you will learn, he is a musician that pulls from all theory and notions. As he educates young minds, Immel educates his music too. At first spin the scent of outside attitudes unearth themselves. You learn as you spin an Immel composition.
As we introduce ourselves to his world, Immel speaks to the many parts he addresses in his music; from the freedom of the jazz mentality to the technical stance of the classical tradition. He often goes off into the world of chill, which he defines in length. The time spent with Immel in conversation is more of a journey than a textbook lecture. Does he get a bit adventurous? Sure! Just spin "Lemonade Alchemy" It has the capacity to surprise the listener, which makes his craftsmanship unique.
The 2008 release of Long Way Home opens attitudes, creativity, and a world of pure expressionism rejuvenated. Morphed from influences from all corridors, Immel’s talent is centered within his focused and culturally induced personal outlook. His compositions mirror the world we created and the one he envisions. It is that compassion for musical splendor along with a firm life philosophy, which makes all the pieces of Immel fit.
As for the technical aspects of his craft, it would be an insult to attempt to script theory. It is far more complimentary that we go between sets with Don Immel.
JazzReview: Don, to get started, our readers first have to understand the passion that burns inside you for the trombone. What stokes this deeply imbedded fascination?
Don Immel: I decided to play trombone far before I knew much about music, for certain before I knew about the importance of music and art in a healthy society. That the trombone is now my artistic vehicle for expression is a result of several great teachers and countless influential recordings of the great players.
I feel very fortunate to have a career as a musician. I’m a trombone player AND making a living at it. I firmly believe that you either have to make your passion your profession, or make your profession your passion. Life is too short to spend time doing anything you don’t enjoy.
JazzReview: You feel the trombone has fallen between the cracks in years gone by, concerning its popularity and flair. Explain why and how you feel this occurred.
Don Immel: Well, this is a general statement to be sure and primarily true only in popular culture. There are hundreds of amazing trombonists around the world, creating and performing all kinds of cutting-edge, as well as historic music. Even some large pop cultures such as the Latin-music genre have a lineage of trombonist heroes dating from the 1960s. The general public may not be aware, but all trombonists know that "one of our kind" is responsible for the sound and success of the rock/fusion/pop band Chicago. But aside from jazz enthusiasts, former or current brass players and jazz musicians, and a small percentage of people who watch Conan O’Brian on late night TV, very few Americans can name even one trombonist. But, I would guess that maybe half of the American public would know the name of a professional trumpet player, if not a few names, and a significant number more would be able to identify a saxophonist or two.
As for why the fall in pop culture, I can only offer a few thoughts. Swing and Big Band became "old" music in the 1940s WWII. Bebop was a logical next step for intellectual jazz artists, but it was a style that was difficult for the general public to understand, and it was a style that did not mix well with the strengths of the instrument. Still, several trombonists forged ahead and made a place for themselves in the new jazz subculture. During this time, the big bands dissolved and the music recording machine found different (and cheaper) icons to promote. The style of Bill Haley and the Comets became the new pop sound in the early 1950s, and this also presented problems for the pure, warm sound of the trombone. Bands were amplified, but horns usually were not. In order to compete with the more cutting sounds of the sax and trumpet, a trombone had to be played very loud, and this significantly diminished dexterity. I guess it was a sound that needed a little break from the mainstream ear.
JazzReview: Versatile, eclectic, unique on and on the imagery of your work is exposed from the pundits, however, let’s put the customary banter aside. Tell us something we don’t know about Don Immel.
Don Immel: Well, let's see... I am a recovering perfectionist. I am an imbalanced romantic who often has to consciously put emotions aside in order to function in the world. I try to live with the knowledge that life is short, and I try to remember to breathe. I've been an unschooled environmentalist since the 3rd or 4th grade, at which time I remember being stressed about the PROBLEMS of co-existence between humans and biodiversity. I won an award for most improved basketball player in the 8th grade.
JazzReview: Canadian jazz trombonist Chris Barber stated, "A frisky spirit makes my trombone sing." What makes your instrument call out to the fandom?
Don Immel: Through my horn, I am being honest and truthful to myself. My music is an organized, tangible version of the indescribable stuff inside my head. For me, writing and playing my music is a way to organize my thoughts, emotions and ideas, and get them out of me! But I do this because I love what I am doing; It challenges me, brings me joy, makes me struggle, results in me learning about myself and about music. My goal is to bring into the world that which is already in my imagination. That the result of this process appeals to other people, and they buy my creation is nice, too, but it isn’t the purpose of creating.
JazzReview: Your debut disk Long Way Home has been labeled, with hesitation, as smooth-jazz--yet the sound is extremely eclectic and attacks from all directions. Talk about the actual personality of the spin, the diversity.
Don Immel: Yes, labels are funny! Still, even though I've been a tenured academician, I am a "serious" chamber and orchestral music performer and so on. I'm not embarrassed that my music is being labeled "smooth jazz." This CD does have melodic jazz influences, and it is certainly reaching a larger audience simply because of the smooth label. I’ll take it!
This is my first project writing and performing my own music. I was surprised by what came out of my head. Perhaps the most challenging thing for me was collecting the technical tools i.e., chop, sound, harmonic language, and composition skills, to be able to express the concepts that are bouncing around in my imagination. Listening to the CD now, I hear a regurgitation of countless influences mixed with my personal perception of those influences. Perhaps another way of saying this is that after years of taking IN Mahler, Miles, Ellington, Armstrong, Thievery Corporation, Coltrane, Puccini, Blood Sweat and Tears, Bach, Brecker, and the sounds of a thousand others, I made this first attempt at seeing what came back OUT of my head. What holds all of the diversity of the album together is the trombone, and the fact that all of this was funneled through the same head; mine.
JazzReview: Don, you mention the gap between jazz and classical, a bridge not too far apart, yet you feel it is a considerable distance. Educate us on the two genres and how you attempted, with great success, the bonding of both in the project.
Don Immel: Thank you, Karl. This project gave me a glimpse of what is inside of me, and I'm quite excited to hear the next chapter! While I didn't set out to make a recording that combined specific elements from either classical or jazz, it is interesting to look back and notice what came from where. For example, I can now observe influences from classical and romantic music in the structures of several of the compositions.
Classical/romantic music is often based on longer, one-time forms rather that the harmonic repetition found in traditional jazz and pop construction. Also, my approach to layering sounds seems orchestration-oriented in terms of adding and combining colors of instruments. From the jazz angle, most of these pieces have significant space for improvisation, and not just in the leading melodic instrument. Of course, live performance allows for considerably more room for this, as well.
As for my thoughts about jazz and classical music, I guess it is easiest to say what is on my music stand in the days approaching a performance. When I am focusing on performing at a high level in the classical arena, then I am addressing things like articulation, intonation, interesting phrasing, flexibility, sound concept, breathing, score study, and so on for several hours each day. When my focus is on performing jazz, I am certainly aware of most of these things, but I am mostly focused on the study of melodic construction and of harmonic language. My classical playing benefits from my jazz focus, and vice versa. I think this is what keeps the trombone interesting to me; I have so many things I want to work on at any given moment!
Both forms rely primarily on a set of learned skills or a vocabulary of words appropriate to the specific style. The one thing that is the same in achieving artistry in either genre is the inclusion of the "human spirit" element that we have discussed. Interestingly, in both camps, this is an ingredient that is often not discussed to a high degree. It can be a difficult area to address because we are no longer dealing with right note or wrong note, in-tune or out-of-tune. Our culture doesn't really have a clear way of discussing spirit or heart, or "life force." These are topics that I find quite interesting, and I seem to be a voracious reader of literature addressing these ideas.
JazzReview: You mention numerous times that jazz is freedom. I agree and feel it has more freedom than any other genre in our midst. So which cut on Long Way Home best illustrates your belief? Talk if you will about the composing of said piece.
Don Immel: Yes, jazz can offer much space or freedom for an individual artist. My personal definition of jazz is based on inclusion of significant individual and ensemble improvisation. Long Way Home is also an exercise in composition and arranging; in many cases creating a setting for said improvisation.
Different tracks provided different freedoms to different musicians; "Dualife" allowed the most space for me as an individual to improvise. Basically I created a white canvas for myself. On this cut, I asked the other musicians to improvise sparsely to allow me the lead voice. "Still in Love" and "Long Way Home" both offer significant freedom for the mastery of pianist Marc Seales, and "Lemonade Alchemy" is an example of allowing space for several of us. I hired these individuals to play the way they play so we could be free to be ourselves. I think it shows.
JazzReview: I have always believed that interpretation is the foundation of jazz and dictates the feel of a spin. With that said, what are your thoughts on that, and if you differ, give us your feelings on the structure of jazz.
Don Immel: My college theory teacher used to say that there are no bad tunes, only bad settings. This from a man whose first hired gig was arranging "I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" as a march for the NBC radio orchestra. Take Ella Fitzgerald singing "Tisket a Tasket" or Bad Plus’ setting of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for good examples of great settings. As we discussed earlier, at the heart of any "meaningful" music is an element of human spirit. This can bring simple notes and sounds alive with spark and interest. A story can be told in many, many interesting ways.
JazzReview: The cuts on Long Way Home are so diverse and each has a personality unique to their development. One that stands out is the sultry Zeppelin-Dixon piece "Whole Lotta" with vocals from Chandry Moore. Describe the process you went through as you put this effort together. How were the arrangements set up?
Don Immel: Each tune on this album was conceived and then brought to fruition in a different way. Some originated on scraps of paper, some straight from my head to a music staff, some I recorded rough ideas into my computer and then notated the ideas later. "Whole Lotta" never got that far, actually. I recruited the solid trombonist and creative musician Vince LaBelle to the University of Washington several years ago as a Master’s student. I told him about my visions for this album and asked if he would co-produce it with me. At some point, he came to me with the idea of doing this cover and had a great bass line riff in mind. A few days later, we sat down at the piano and I came up with chords and the descending fourth idea for the chorus. I actually conducted and cued the band through the tune in the studio rather than limit the imaginations of the musicians with written charts and such, so no notes were ever written down. At that point, the search began to find the right voice, which Vince and I agreed should be a sultry, female timbre.
I listened to a ton of CDs, MySpace samples and so on. The right voice ended up being just down the hall at my university! Chandry is an opera student at UW and at the time was doing a bit of jazz singing as well. I asked her to prepare a version of "Whole Lotta" and the next week, she came back with an impressive version ala Whitney Houston. It was really powerful, and exactly wrong, but her talent, pitch, attitude and enthusiasm were so obvious, that I decided this was going to be the voice! We met a few more times, and you hear the result. It is perfect. My budget being long spent, leaving for Denmark in a few days, Vince recorded her track in his college-pad living room with the noise of construction work pounding away on the street below.
JazzReview: "Dualife," along with "Charm Offensive," is described by you as "chill" music, a mix between smooth electronica and soft techno. Let’s get into the chill genre and help us understand this musical flavor. How does the trombone influence the feel of the sound?
Don Immel: My publicist and I discussed chill at some length a few months ago. At the time, I defined chill as "smooth acid-jazz," but since then, I've learned a lot more about its interesting history. I went through a 6-month phase of only listening and jamming to chill music. The sounds were so cool, but most of the tracks I came across didn't offer much in terms of melody.
My friend, saxophonist/conductor Matt Cattingub, calls chill music "one, long introduction." Traditionally, the music is electronic-based mood music based on reputation and colors. But chill is now used as a label for many different forms, including trip hop, nu-jazz, trance, ambient music, etc. Acoustic instrumentalists like Michel Benita have been incorporating and experimenting with these sounds for years, and electronic groups such as Thievery Corporation, Tosca and Kruder and Dormeister are using more and more acoustic sounds (whether sampled or live-recorded) so the results offer some great listening. The voice of the trombone blends really well into this mix! I have to say, it was a lot of fun using first-rate musicians to acoustically create what has historically been an electronic-based music form. I'm doing more experimentation with this and hope to do an entire "chill-base" release in the next year or so.
JazzReview: One of the coolest rides on the disk is "Lemonade Alchemy," which showcases all the talent in the studio with you-a full circle cut! Talk about the spin and the sounds within.
Don Immel: Exactly. It started out as a gritty, bluesy idea, but evolved into a funky tune with lots of space for the band. I gave the musicians some riffs to play around with and the resulting layers offered a hip background for drummer Gary Hobbs to solo over. I wanted to write a tune that would showcase Gary, percussionist Ben Thomas, and let the band stretch a little. If you listen deep, you can even hear Chandry mixed into the layers with the trombone. This tune can go in a lot of directions when playing it live.
JazzReview: Is there a dream project on the map of Immel?
Don Immel: There are a lot of them. I hope to record with some of my heroes: Pat Metheny, Michel Benita, Billy Kilson and Bill Frissell. I’m planning a classical album with orchestra, and writing tunes for my next jazz-based project.
JazzReview: Let’s slide out of the serious and dig deep inside you! Answer these probing questions and be blatantly honest:
Q: What is your favorite stress release?
A: Playing squash and reading. I also find practicing long tones and working on my sound concept strangely meditative.
Q: Name your top three trombone legends and your favorite cut from each?
A: I can’t just pick three, but here are a few favorites -- J.J. Johnson with Stan Getz At the Opera House, Joe Alessi’s recording of Christopher Rouse’s Trombone Concerto with Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Carl Fontana’s playing on Great American Trombone Company, Barry Rogers’ playing and arranging with Eddie Palmieri on Azucar Pa' Ti, and Vienna Trombone Quartet on Russian Melodies.
Q: If you could score a film, what would it have been?
A: Team America.
Q: If art was life, which artist would mirror your journey?
A: Perhaps author Paulo Coelho. He takes esoteric themes and presents them so as to be accessible, interesting and beautiful.
Q: If you needed to get away, where would you go?
A: A few years ago I needed to get away. I moved to Honolulu for a year, and then I moved to Denmark. For the most part, I’ve learned that "wherever you are, there you are." But beautiful beaches, mountains and a perfect climate certainly made it a little easier to examine my navel for a while.
Q: Your last read?
A: Eat, Pray, Love by Gilbertson and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Sapolsky.
Last thought from Don Immel:
Over my nine years as a university professor, graduate students would often approach me with some variation of "the world is a mess; it needs me doing something profound! Should I really be working towards a trombone degree?" To which I offer that humanity wouldn't be in such a mess if more people realized and followed their OWN passions, be it trombone or bee keeping. It is my belief that I will affect the most people in a positive way if I follow my passion to learn about, create and perform music. Life is too short to not see it this way.
After Sets with Ben Pelletier, Radio Television Hong Kong, who attended grad school with Don Immel at Rice University:
Ben Pelletier: Every once in awhile an instrumentalist with a relatively obscure instrument comes along; and through his passion, the strength of his belief in himself and the power of his concept, that musician is able to insert himself into the public consciousness. In the world of the trombone, these figures have been few and far between, Tommy Dorsey and perhaps Arthur Pryor being two historical examples. What Don Immel is doing is putting sexy back into the trombone by placing its warm, voluptuous sound in a setting that works naturally for the instrument. The result is so sensual, hip and organic it makes one wonder "Where has the trombone been all these years?"
Karl Stober is a freelance critic and journalist internationally who is still looking for the meaning of life through music.