THAT’S MY NUMBER
To the power of 11 Dennis Rollins returns this month with his new trombone/organ trio Velocity, and the release of The 11th Gate, a record that sees the first album by the influential trombone player and bandleader under his own name since Big Night Out five years ago when Rollins featured on the cover of Jazzwise. In recent years he has been touring as a featured member of funk great Maceo Parker’s hugely successful group. Ahead of the release Rollins talks to Andy Robson
Aconversation with Dennis Rollins is like one of his solos: it whoops and soars, never stinting for energy, always looking for the new, the fresh, the uplifting. Nor does it lack subtlety. Indeed, those who only know Rollins for his funk band Badbone may be pleasantly surprised by his new trombone trio, Velocity, a band rich in a jazz musicality. Hang on, a trombone trio?
Rollins laughs. “Yeah, I think that’s pretty unique. It all started from a chance conversation with Courtney Pine. But then so much does start with him! He is the essence. He looms large in everything. He asks that question all the time ‘Can it be done?’ He set me the challenge to find a trombone trio in the jazz tradition. And you know, I can’t find one!”
Well, now there is one, with Ross Stanley’s organ and Pedro Segundo’s drums combining with Rollins’ sweet toned ’bone. You can hear the fruition of their work on their debut The 11th Gate, the first British band released on the illustrious American Motéma label, home to the likes of Geri Allen and Gregory Porter.
Organ trios have of course abounded through jazz, most notably in association with guitars or saxophones. But once Rollins had plumped for this format – the trio started gigging around 18 months ago – he realised that challenge was mixed with opportunity. “Firstly, I had no models for this line up,” he says. “Then there’s the frequency: the organ, like the trombone, is a midrange instrument, it covers a low-to-middle range – sonically a trombone isn’t going to contrast with the organ. But I’ve always said the trombone is [the instrument] most like the human voice. I really had to find a way to make the trombone – indeed all the band – sing. And harmonically you obviously don’t have the chordal opportunities of a guitar. But one reason why I wanted to do this band, to move away from the funk was to explore more harmonically with my writing.”
One answer was technology. “I’ve got more pedals than a guitarist!” laughs Rollins. And indeed on the title track of the album, Rollins is multi-tracked 11 times (we’ll return to the significance of that number 11) to build a choral whirl of trombones. But that song apart, there are virtually no over-dubs on the recording. Rollins was especially keen not to use effects for effects sake. “I may have 20 pedals at my disposal but I may only use three of them all night. What’s important is to have a wide palette at your disposal. But I only want to use effects when they enhance the music emotionally. The first place you have to start from is a strong tune, strong writing. When you’re in a trio, you are so naked.
The Harmoniser gives me the opportunity to add harmonic richness, but my writing for Velocity is very different than for Badbone. With funk it’s about layering stuff, building textures. It’s great to play funk as I have over the years. But it can be limited harmonically, and Velocity gives me the chance at last to stretch myself. [With Velocity] it all starts from the melody, then the chords kind of write themselves.”
‘11 11 11 IS A GOOD TIME, A COMING TOGETHER OF THE EVOLUTION OF GLOBAL,
HUMAN COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS, REFLECTING
A NEED TO RECOGNISE INDIVIDUAL HUMAN WORTH’
– DENNIS ROLLINS
Indeed, both live and on the album, it’s striking how the trio engages the audience with an intimate, organic call and response between themselves rather than the bluff and bluster of effects. And indeed although the band’s name may suggest speed and attack – “and we do that too, we can rock when we want!” – it’s a treat to savour the spaciousness of the arrangements, the sense of mystery and open-endedness that pervades much of the music.
Part of that ambience comes from the influences that Rollins enjoys. He’s always been a keen student of the trombone – the opening cut of his Big Night Out album is a celebration of his ’bone predecessors – but with Velocity “I really wanted to explore other influences, especially from the jazz world, and beyond just the trombone. It’s important to think beyond the trombone, to think of it as only one voice within a wider palette.”
And a crucial voice that has come through for Rollins is Larry Young (Khalid Yasin), “especially the Unity album, which is so special.
You can particularly hear that on ‘Emergence’ (the echo in the title of Lifetime’s Emergency! album is surely no coincidence) – but there are so many other influences, like Monk, Mingus and Steve Coleman. I hope, too, that there are some sounds of great contemporary British bands, like Empirical. Well I hope so!”
‘Emergence’ features Stanley’s long, ethereal, unresolved chords, giving Rollins the chance to roam and explore, to dive in and out of the whole, at once furiously ecstatic, then momentarily meditative, much as McLaughlin exploded off Young’s chords for Tony Williams’ Lifetime.
“What really mattered for me,” explains Rollins, was to “find a place that didn’t sound contrived, to find variations between the three of us; there has to be constant communication, anticipation, mutual inspiration: you can’t just ‘wait’ to solo as in a quartet or quintet.”
Lucky then that Rollins has such empathetic band mates in Stanley and Segundo. Stanley “and I go back forever” but Segundo, a Portuguese by birth but resident in the UK, was recommended to Rollins while he was still a student a Guildhall. “And he was studying classical percussion at that,” remembers Rollins. “He’s got such a large knowledge of all things percussion, that fiery Portuguese background, he brings so much, which is important to me to have the widest number of voices.”
With two Guildhall graduates in the trio, and as someone who’s taken a huge interest in jazz education, notably around his own home area of Doncaster, Rollins is understandably positive about music education for youngsters. As a young man himself, there were not many role models for trombone players, but he benefited from the input of inspirational teachers, like Courtney Pine.
“Colleges are now producing more and more skilled musicians, including trombone players,” says Rollins. But it’s paradoxical that at a time that Rollins is turning more to the complexities and richness of jazz, someone like Trombone Shorty, with his deep marching band and jazz heritage, has turned to pop and rock.
“I know Trombone Shorty well, we meet on the circuit and we always hug and talk. He’s a great trombone player. He sings too, and he’s decided to go down that rock and funk path, to go for that three-and-a-half minute radio friendly song. I’ve heard that album, but I feel personally that my journey is evolving away from funk. I’m eager to be part of a more jazz sound. Badbone & Co. have been going 11 years now, and we do the occasional gig. But I want that natural evolution to other things. That’s the beauty of being a
28 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise