On Joe Fiedler’s Big Sackbut, the titular trombonist-composer manages the too-rare feat of creating art while having a blast, whipping up song arrangements for his quartet of three trombonists and a tuba that are variously punchy, poignant and peculiar. Although the all-horn ensemble can’t help but conjure comparisons to the World Saxophone Quartet, the brass-heavy groups led by Lester Bowie and Dave Douglas, and the entire New Orleans brass-band tradition, Fiedler has his own idiosyncratic agenda: Like Bowie, he believes in humor that alternately tweaks and embraces convention. Hence his use of the word “sackbut” (a forerunner of the modern trombone), and his dipping into the catalogs of iconoclasts like Sun Ra (“A Call For All Demons”) and Captain Beefheart (“Blabber and Smoke”) for songs that were actually among their more conservative offerings. Fiedler’s third cover choice, a scintillating take on Willie Colon’s “Calle Luna, Calle Sol,” references and reflects his Latin chops during his stints with Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri. These are sifted in among seven Fiedler originals to comprise a remarkably diverse stylistic palette. Fielder accurately concludes that the inherent limitations of the group’s instrumentation will give coherence to the collection.
Those looking for dovetailed bleats and roars will be immediately satiated by the opener, “Mixed Bag,” a four-ply brass weave with nappy metallic edges. But the surprise is how effectively Big Sackbut moves at slower tempos. “Don Pullen” is a creamy swoon capped by a gorgeous solo from Ryan Keberle. Trombonist Josh Roseman and the group tap into Beefheart’s skewed blues roots on “Blabber.” And Marcus Rojas is a revelation with an opening tuba solo on “Ging Gong” that gurgles with the resonance of a didgeridoo. In fact Rojas, who has likewise been vital to Douglas’s Brass Ecstasy and Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus, is the clear MVP of the Sackbut crew, providing a near-ubiquitous creative bottom and offering compelling counterpoint on most every trombone solo. Here’s hoping that he and the three ‘bones huff, puff and slide their way to another Fiedler-guided outing in the not-too-distant future.