Few would argue with the statement that there are not an excess of guitar-trombone duet albums. In fact, this date (which has been reissued on CD) may very well be somewhat unique instrumentation-wise in jazz history. Trombonist J.J. Johnson had already been the pacesetter on his instrument for nearly 40 years at the time, while guitarist Joe Pass proved in the 1970s that he could make his axe fulfill all the roles of an orchestra. Still, the strong success of this inspired outing is a bit of a surprise. While Pass often adds walking lines behind J.J., Johnson sometimes plays long tones behind the guitarist's solos. Most exciting are the spots where the two share the lead equally. Other than Bud Powell's "Bud's Blues" and J.J.'s "Naked as a Jaybird," the duo sticks to standards. But obviously, these versions sound quite a bit different than usual. Highlights include "Wave," "Limehouse Blues," "Nature Boy" and "When Lights Are Low."
- Scott Yanow (All Music Guide)
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I have heard some odd combinations in my time, and even played in a few, but I never recall hearing a program performed by trombone and guitar. Of course there is no reason, given the high sophistication of modern music, why such a duet should not be as stimulating to the musicians participating as it is pleasing to the audiences listening. But I suppose it is simply that these two particular instruments are never consciously thought of as partners. As it happens, both J.J. and Joe know all about the rewards and the pitfalls of the dual alliance. In the long long ago it was J.J.'s dialogues with fellow trombonist Kai Winding which brought his playing to a wider audience curiously attracted by the euphony of "Jay and Kai." As for Pass, his feats over the last ten years have been so ubiquitous as finally to convince me that there is no musical instrument known to man with which he could not play a duet with perfect aplomb, so wonderfully organized is his art. If you were to tell me Pass with glockenspiel, I would not raise an eyebrow, merely cock my ears. Pass with sousaphone? Pass with kazoo? Pass with ophicleide? Certainly.
The first, very testing demand which a duet of this kind makes on a musician is his sense of time, that most precious, most elusive, most essential of all jazz virtues, without which even the loveliest melodic line is rendered invertebrate and falls about its own ears. In these trombone-guitar duets, Johnson and Pass have no rhythm section on which to rely, no drummer defining the tempo, no bassist describing the roots of the chords, no pianist to display the textures of those chords. Instead, each man, in addition to being his own soloist, must also be drummer, bassist, and pianist, not only spectrally, inside his own head while creating his own solo, but also audibly while accompanying his partner. It may sound a shade peculiar, I dare say, to talk of J.J. Johnson "accompanying" another musician, but that is exactly what happens time and again on this album. In "Limehouse Blues," for instance, one of the very few jazz standards to come from Britain, the trombone voice behind the guitar solo is a sort of brass brass, playing the chord roots and also functioning as a sort of tempo-definer. Not that Pass needs any reminding of the tempo; both he and Johnson are such past masters that I suppose the next logical step would be a purely solo album. Indeed, Joe has made several of these, with predictably staggering results, especially for other guitarists.
In his playing with Johnson, Pass sometimes uses the guitar as a conventional strummed instrument, or sometimes as a sort of walking bass, or sometimes again as an equal voice participating in one of those improvised duet passages which are simple enough for the jazz musician, at least in theory, but which reduce most classically-oriented musicians to terrified jellies. Johnson too rings the changes, sometimes producing long sustained notes behind the guitar, at others punctuating each beat, as in the "Jaybird" track, where the contours of the composition lend themselves to that effect so well that at some points the two voices are actually playing four crochets to a bar together. Some idea of how cleverly the changes are rung, and how surreptitiously both men display their art, may be gathered from the very wide differences, not only in tempo, but in atmosphere, from the conventional blues to the subtlest Latin innuendo. After hearing the tracks for the first time, and then listening to them again in retrospect as it were, I could have sworn that there were one or two other musicians present.
Johnson has at his disposal one further asset denied to the guitarist, and that is the deployment of mutes to effect further variation. "Nature Boy" is an example of this, and it turns out to be one of J.J.'s big moments on the album. The first chorus, muted trombone, unaccompanied, sounds exactly like those idealized, two-dimensional visions of the jazz life as imparted by Hollywood, when it used to show the instrumentalist playing alone in a small room, the truth is that all instrumentalists play alone in a small room for much of their lives, this being the only way in which they can listen to themselves with sufficient intensity to formulate a style and assess their changes. When we hear the trombone so beautifully playing "Nature Boy," we are hearing jazz stripped down to the very barest essentials and yet sounding perfectly complete.
There is a comparable moment from Joe, when he plays "How Long Has This Been Going On?," a rendering as peaceful and as tranquil as any I remember. Again the trombone is muted, but just this once I think it might be reasonable to suggest that the duo has become a trio, for surely the master-musician behind this track is George Gershwin. So felicitous is the tune, so cunning the harmonies, that it is hard to think that George originally wrote it for some forgotten ingenue. When Joe plays it, the origins of the song are obliterated, almost as though the composer, when he conceived it all those years ago, and in such a distant milieu, was somehow blessed with the precognitlon that one day musicians like Johnson and Pass would have perfected their art to a peak sufficiently elevated to do justice to the song. It is a very moving moment in a very moving album.