It’s easy to dismiss the trombone as a backing instrument that carries the middle and lower voices in arrangements. At its worst, it’s a sluggish, blatting elephant. At its best, in the hands of a master like Bill Watrous, it has a rich, supple sound that brings a new perspective to jazz standards.
Born in Connecticut in 1939, Watrous started trombone when he was a kid, taught by his dad. He played in trumpeter/cornetist Billy Butterfield’s band in the late 1950s, and soon got a reputation as a skilled and reliable trombonist who could support top artists. In the years before Watrous started recording on his own, he was hired to perform with the likes of Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson.
While he developed a penchant for bebop and was known for his grasp of bossa nova, Watrous never let go of the big-band swing roots of the standard repertoire, and he never shied away from using old-fashioned arrangements or working with old-school players.
He died in Los Angeles in 2018, having influenced two generations of jazz trombonists. Enjoy these eight great tracks by Bill Watrous.
- Track: “My Way”
Album: Bill Watrous Plays Love Themes for the Underground, the Establishment & Other Sub Cultures Not Yet Known
Walter Raim was an arranger and bandleader specializing in smooth 1960s lounge and space-age pop, both styles with heavy jazz influence. His band, the Walter Raim Concept, accompanies Watrous on this album. Also notable: The record is engineered by Phil Ramone!
“My Way” is one of several Sinatra-inspired tracks on this album. (Another cut worth hearing is Van Heusen and Cahn’s “September of My Years.”) Watrous is the Sinatra of the ’bone. He truly sings this melody. Granted, it’s hard not to chuckle at the goofy, overly busy arrangement, very much of its time, but any brass musician can learn about phrasing from Watrous’ performance here.
- Track: “The Tiger of San Pedro”
Album: The Tiger of San Pedro
Watrous wanted his own group, and in the mid 1970s he formed the 13-piece Manhattan Wildlife Refuge Big Band, which plays on this album. The New York version of the group was short-lived, but when Watrous moved to LA he reconstituted it as Refuge West.
The title song is by trumpeter John P. LaBarbera, best known as a member of Buddy Rich’s band. His inspiration was a character from a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge,” about a deposed South American dictator in exile. Hence the Latin jazz influence in the tune, which Watrous arranges with a light touch, allowing plenty of space for a string of virtuosic solos. Watrous’ own contribution – such lithe and flexible bebop figures that it’s hard to believe it’s a trombone – begins at 2:50.
- Track: “Blue Bossa”
Album: Watrous in Hollywood
Label: Famous Door
Watrous made the move west in the late 1970s, and spent the rest of his life based in LA This album, one of several he did on the indie label Famous Door and produced by its founder, Harry Lim, features trumpeter Danny Stiles. For the occasion, Watrous put together a six-man band, calling it the Bill Watrous Combo.
“Blue Bossa,” which opens Side B, is a 1963 hard bop tune with a Latin feel by trumpeter Kenny Dorham; over the decades, it has inspired many great covers by McCoy Tyner, Art Pepper, and others. Watrous and friends relish the bop dissonances while maintaining the laid-back bossa-nova underpinnings. Joe Romano’s tenor sax solo at 1:15 is particularly thoughtful. Watrous has plenty to say when he comes in at 2:45.
- Track: “Limehouse Blues”
Album: Roaring Back into New York, New York
Label: Famous Door
The Bill Watrous Quartet (Linc Milliman on bass, Ronnie Bedford on drums, and longtime collaborator Derek Smith on piano) was another of the trombonist’s gigging and recording ensembles.
“Limehouse Blues” is by lyricist Douglas Furber and composer Philip Braham, a British songwriting duo from the early 20th century. The gentle be-bop reworking lays a foundation for some truly charming solo playing by Watrous, who somehow manages to keep his musical language both historical and modern.
- Track: “Hey There”
Album: Bill Watrous and Carl Fontana
This album was part of Atlas Records’ series West Coast Jazz Today, which spanned 1980-1984 and included 30 recordings, many of them by big names such as Herb Ellis, Shelly Manne, and Monty Alexander. Bill Watrous and Carl Fontana pairs two great jazz trombonists. Fontana’s background was classic big band; he played with Woody Herman’s group, as well as those of Lionel Hampton and Stan Kenton. Once the big band era faded, he found work in Las Vegas.
The song list is mainly Broadway and movie musical numbers. “Hey There” was composed by Jerry Ross and Richard Adler for their 1954 show The Pajama Game. While it’s fun to hear the two masters exchange solos, the real highlights are the passages where the trombones play in harmony, a rare and satisfying sound.
- Track: “How Deep Is the Ocean”
Label: GNP Crescendo
The album Bone-Ified is a whole new Watrous quartet, with Shelly Berg on piano, Lou Fischer on bass, and Randy Drake on drums. The track list includes American popular standards plus a couple of original numbers by Watrous.
On his dozens of albums, Watrous consistently favored the music of Irving Berlin, probably for the simple, heartfelt melodies that acted like a clean canvas to decorate with improvisation. A good example is this version of Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean.”
- Track: “Blue Monk”
Album: Live at the Blue Note
Label: Half Note
Here’s another casting of the Bill Watrous Quartet, this time with Russell George on bass, Joe Ascione on drums, and Derek Smith on piano. The album, of a live show from 1998, is produced by Jack Kreisberg, founder of Half Note records, which he developed specifically to record shows from the Blue Note jazz club in New York City.
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane originally recorded “Blue Monk” in 1956. Watrous’ version is much slower and more legato than the original, emphasizing the blues aspect of the tune, as opposed to the sly, disjointed interpretation by Monk. Smith gets in some impressive, percussive piano licks. Watrous’ solo starting at 3:48 demonstrates astonishing facility in the upper registers without losing the groove.
- Track: “Lester Leaps In”
Album: Kindred Spirits
Kindred Spirits is a collaboration with tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb and the Gary Urwin Jazz Orchestra and is Watrous’ last solo studio album.
“Lester Leaps In,” by tenor sax master Lester Young, was first recorded by its composer with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1939. This high-energy classic, from the era when bebop was just starting to flavor swing music, is presented in a lively arrangement that features quotes from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” to keep it rolling. Watrous’ virtuosity is as stunning as ever.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John Dugan.