Best of birthdays to trumpet master Jim Rotondi, who has been teaching the last several years in Austria at the University of Graz. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of writing liner notes for three of Jim’s CDs for Criss Cross, the first of which — for Excursions (1999) — I’m posting below. It was a first-class date on which the personnel of One For All (Eric Alexander, Steve Davis, Dave Hazeltine, Peter Washington) plus Kenny Washington on drums, play a series of terrific charts.
Jim Rotondi (Excursions):
For Excursions, his third Criss-Cross recording, Jim Rotondi surrounded himself with his top-shelf colleagues from the sextet collective One For All. “I feel comfortable when I play with these guys, freer to select options that I might not normally choose,” the 37-year-old trumpeter avers. “I think music works best when you throw something a little different in the mix just to see what happens. Sometimes you get results you’d never have imagined.”
The familiar surroundings (the only “ringer” is impeccable trapsetter Kenny Washington, replacing regular OFA drummer Joe Farnsworth) spur Rotondi to etch in sharp focus the qualities that have won him numerous admirers in recent years as a featured soloist with Lionel Hampton, Charles Earland and — more recently — Kyle Eastwood. Projecting one of the most beautiful sounds in jazz, he plays with staunch confidence, nuanced maturity and intuitive melodicism — and reaffirms his charter membership in the no-holds-barred society of improvisers.
Rotondi comments: “One thing that differentiates a Lionel Hampton experience from a One For All experience is that it’s much more blues-based, more elemental. One For All uses more complex forms, and if we play a blues it probably won’t be straight but a variation on the blues. Gates grew up in the straight blues, and it’s important to him to keep it in there. The spirit is to go for it, to try to deliver 100 percent every time. I think that’s the spirit of One For All, and we translate it to this record as well. We’ve come to have a reputation as a group that flexes its musical muscles, one with a lot of technical prowess. Really, we just believe in going for it, in trying to play everything at the peak of its potential.”
Rotondi is effusive about One For All front-line partners Eric Alexander (tenor) and Steve Davis (trombone), both familiar to Criss-Cross devotees. “We think the same way,” he says. “The three of us are like one voice; we phrase the same way naturally, without talking or thinking about it.
The Rotondi-Alexander partnership began a year after the trumpeter settled in New York. “I met Eric when he was attending William Patterson College in the ’80s, and it’s inspiring to see him come so far. When I first met him, he didn’t have a wide variety of tools and language, and now he has probably the biggest arsenal of any of the young players out there. He did it with discipline and dedication. To me, every song that he writes captures his spirit more than the previous one.” Alexander’s contribution here is “Jim’s Waltz,” taken at the camelwalk pace that Kenny Washington likes to call the “grown-up’s tempo,” featuring Rotondi’s burnished tone. “It’s typical of Eric’s personality — uplifting, happy,” Rotondi comments. “The melody is all major key, very diatonic, but still interesting. It goes to a couple of unexpected places, but makes perfect sense — which I think is his essence as a writer and player.”
Let’s digress with a synopsized account of Rotondi’s pre-New York years (Rotondi scholars who want more should refer to the notes for Introducing Jim Rotondi [Criss-1128] and Jim’s Bop [Criss-1156]). Rotondi’s mother is a piano teacher, and the Butte, Montana, native played piano from the age of 8; he took up the trumpet upon entering high school. “My background when I began to play trumpet was more in classical music,” he relates. “My live music exposure pretty much consisted of Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich, but when I was 14 I picked up a collection of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach EmArcy recordings and Woody Shaw’s Rosewood. After I got those records — and many others — I started experimenting with different things that I hadn’t been aware of before when I was practicing the piano. I think it’s extremely important for trumpet players to have a piano. As Dizzy said he told Miles, on the trumpet you’ve got one note, but on the piano you’ve got 88. If you understand all 88, it’s a lot easier to find the right place to put one.”
Rotondi wound up at North Texas State University, eventually landing in the school’s elite One O’Clock Lab Band. “When I arrived they automatically placed me on the bottom, because so many musicians are there,” he recalls. “I didn’t have it completely together; in fact I was quite a distance from it! I learned a lot in terms of basic skills; pulled up my technique and ability to sight-read music, and learned about the professional ethic. After school I went to Miami and worked on a cruise ship for a year, with the aim of saving money to move to New York, which I did in June 1987.”
Rotondi, Alexander and Joe Farnsworth stuck together, worked small but steady gigs and sideman jobs. Farnsworth landed a gig at Augie’s, the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured much of New York’s young talent in the ’90s’; in 1994, they brought in butter-toned Davis — currently a two-year member of Chick Corea’s Origin Ensemble — whose warm, enveloping sound and ability to generate instant momentum in his solos makes him a perfect fit. Of Davis’ title track, Rotondi says: “This tune is a classic example of the music Steve writes. Simple melodies, putting interesting chords underneath them; he finds these perfect little chord-melody combinations. He’s one of the strongest writers of the younger guys. This tune is a nice Bossa Nova in an AAB form; it goes through a lot of different tonal centers, which makes it interesting and fun to play on.”
Formidable pianist David Hazeltine rounded out One For All in 1995; his up-tempo arrangement of “Angel Eyes” is, Rotondi exults, “classic Hazeltine. He’ll take a standard and slightly alter the harmony or chord changes, which makes the tune more interesting to solo on. Eric and Dave like to have everything very well worked out; they think things through, and don’t like to leave a lot to chance.”
The oft-paired (on Criss-Cross at least) Peter and Kenny Washington bring their customary excellence to the proceedings. “Whatever you think a bass player should be, Peter is,” Rotondi comments. “And I’ve always loved Kenny’s playing; he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything musical, and brings it to every record he’s on. He’s always an asset. He completely took care of business, and did it with aplomb.”
Rotondi’s “Shortcake,” a peppery medium-bright minor line with a Latin feel that begins with a pair of storm-cloud chords, “was written for my girlfriend,” the composer remarks. The bravura trumpeter bites off the notes with brash panache, evoking the sound of Freddie Hubbard, a major influence. Ditto on Rotondi’s arrangement “Little B’s Poem,” a memorable Bobby Hutcherson melody on which both Hubbard and Woody Shaw have had an earlier say. This cool, restrained, stop-start version is spurred by Hazeltine’s intuitive comping and Kenny Washington’s ingenious rhythmic formulations.
Don’t think Rotondi is anyone’s style clone; he’s assimilated the entire post Clifford Brown trumpet tree and reached his own conclusions. He states: “Clifford and Woody were my initial influences. Though other guys during Clifford’s time — and before — played as much if not more than he, Clifford covered so much and nailed everything perfectly, even though his playing is completely spontaneous-sounding and creative. I think it’s a testament to his talent and ability that, young as he was, he never flubbed.
“Woody Shaw to me is the last true trumpet innovator; on his early recordings there’s a strong Hubbard and Booker Little influence, but he found his own language. The way I hear it, playing with McCoy Tyner opened him up to the solutions he ultimately found. He inspired me to strive to find my own way to play, to find my own voice — because he really found his. He blended his version of bebop trumpet with avant-garde elements he was exposed to through playing with Dolphy and Coltrane — it was all in his playing.
“The first thing that struck me about Freddie was his sound, a combination of round, darkish warmth with the bit of edge that I think the trumpet needs to have. Then it was the long melodic lines he constructed that went all through the changes. Freddie likes to tell the story of running back and forth between Sonny and Trane, and revealing to one what the other was working on; I’m sure practicing with them opened him up unbelievably.
“I’ve done a lot of transcribing of Booker Little; by the age of 22, when he died, he’d completely found his own voice. Tonally, his playing reminds me of a Classical approach applied to jazz, very precise, the same fat tone from the lowest end of the trumpet all the way up to the top.
“Kenny Dorham to me is the true melodist of all of them; every trumpet player should study K.D. to learn the importance of making a melody. They are logical and beautiful, and make so much sense. He was the first guy I know of to really put Bebop harmony, i.e., tritone substitutions and other devices, clearly in his playing.
“Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were early influences. I still think of Blue Mitchell as the best ballad trumpet player of all time, principally because he never overplayed. He just played the melody, and let his tone do all the work.”
Rotondi’s gorgeous reading of “What Is There To Say?” — co-arranged with Eric Alexander — would make Mitchell smile. “I got the tune from Nat King Cole’s ‘After Midnight’ session,” he explains. “It’s simple, with potential to interpolate some interesting chords. I try to find lyrics whenever I can to any standard I’m going to play. It will keep you from playing anything extraneous if the lyrics are in your ear.”
Excursions concludes with Rotondi’s arrangement of Benny Golson’s “Little Karen,” followed by a fingerpopping “Fried Pies,” a Wes Montgomery blues on which all members stretch out. “On my last few records, I’ve tried to include something from a great jazz composer and see if I can do something different with it,” Rotondi remarks. “On One To Ten [1961, Argo] Benny took this tune pretty straight-ahead; I gave the A-section a Horace Silver-like mambo treatment. And Gerry Teekens always likes to have a blues on the record, and I do, too.”
It’s an ideal conclusion for an impeccable album. For Rotondi and his colleagues, way past their apprenticeships, individual influences are now a point of departure; their voices are prominent landmarks in the narrative of mainstream jazz.