Christan Griego interviewed Steve Wiest soon after he joined the Edwards Team.
Christan Griego: When you first walked into the Edwards Pro Stop what was your first impression?
Steve Wiest: I think the first thing anybody notices are the wall-to-ceiling trombone bells and slides on display. I had never been in a place with such an exhaustive array of components. It was very obvious that this place is serious about putting together the most professional horns possible. The potential is almost overwhelming and very exciting. For a trombonist, it is pretty much everything you could ever want in one room! Honestly, I couldn’t wait to tear into it.
CG: Can you explain the process of getting fit to your horn from the player’s perspective?
SW: This was truly a fun experience. I was worried at first that I might not be able to navigate my way through all of the possible combinations, but you made it very easy. Essentially, I had a sound in mind and you would bring in components that you felt would achieve the desired results. Most of it went pretty quickly, but we spent extra time on choosing a bell. I actually got to “test drive” the final couple of combinations with the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra and sitting in with Maynard Ferguson’s band. I also played the new set up on some guest appearances with and without amplification to see how it would hold up “in the heat of battle”. Once we had the winning combination, I had the real treat of picking out art work for the engraving on the bell, and “Excalibur” was born! With you running the science “behind the scenes” all I had to do was listen, play, and have a great time!
CG: You’ve always played on a 3B and a lot of people are going to want to know the difference you’ve experienced between the 3B and your new axe “Excalibur”. Can you share with us your thoughts on sound and feel between the 3B and “Excalibur”?
SW: I always liked the flexibility of the 3B and the way it could cut across any ensemble when needed, so I wanted to begin with that as a starting point with the new horn. After you achieved that as a foundation, the real magic began to happen. I find that “Excalibur” has a wonderful dark sound, which I was searching for, but it can also cut and project at high volumes in the extreme upper register. In fact, the upper register slots so beautifully on the new horn, that I found myself playing licks and phrases containing intervals that I wouldn’t have tried before. So I think that is the essential difference: “Excalibur” has a wonderful dark sound in all the registers and a huge dynamic range, plus an overtone series that slots so well it’s almost frightening! It is by far the best jazz trombone I have ever played!
CG: What are you currently working on?
SW: I have two major projects, one ongoing, and the other specifically during this summer of ’03. The ongoing project has to do with being a life-long student of the jazz tradition. I am always striving to improve my jazz vocabulary. In May, I had one of my heroes, Slide Hampton, out at UWW to do a workshop. One of the most inspirational moments happened when Slide, some guest student artists, Josh Brown, and myself visited the Edwards Pro Shop. Slide wanted to try out some horn combinations, so I was treated to an hour of his playing through some of the most difficult bebop heads in the literature. He zipped through “Shaw Nuff”, “Hot House”, and “Confirmation” like most folks zip through a Bb major scale. So, because of that , my current vocabulary project consists of getting more bebop heads together. The “beast de jour” is “Hot House”, which has a wonderful bridge that is quite a workout! My goal is to not only learn these melodies, but to “assimilate” them in such a way that I can incorporate them into my own playing.
The other project for this summer is an article that I am writing for the International Trombone Association Journal on the legendary James Pankow. Most every trombonist in the world knows about Jimmy from his playing and writing in the rock group Chicago, so I wanted to do an extensive interview and article about how he developed and maintains his very distinctive voice. It has been a blast! Jimmy is a very cool guy who is a hoot to talk with. We had a wonderful interview, and I think the article will be great fun for all those trombone fans that have been touched by Pankow’s career [like myself!] You can look for a publication date of sometime in early 2004.
CG: What projects lie in store for you in the future?
SW: The big project that is coming up is very ambitious. I have just been awarded a sabbatical for Spring, 2004 and I will be writing a CDs worth of big band charts to feature myself. I have had the great honor of writing for others [Maynard Ferguson, many universities, and professional groups, etc.] but never a series of pieces to showcase my own playing. So, it is with great excitement that I am preparing for this indulgence! I will be going after a series of grants beginning this Fall, and if I get lucky and get a couple of them., I will plan on recording this project late summer ’04, or early Spring ’05. All of the charts are in the very early sketch stage, and I have access to some of the best musicians around here in the Milwaukee-Madison-Chicago area, so I have high hopes. I am doubly excited now that I have “Excalibur” in that a full range of dynamic and musical possibilities are now possible. It will be a fun ride!
CG: When you are teaching young jazz musicians what is the one area you focus on the most?
SW: I think the most important area is listening and assimilating. What I mean by this is that too many young musicians approach the music from a purely theoretical or written standpoint [written solo transcriptions without the original recording, learning chord/scale options alone for improvisation, etc.] While a strong understanding of theory is very necessary, it is so important to learn the language from recordings, concerts, and live one-on-one sessions. So I focus on that when we are learning: If we are learning tunes, learn them from the recordings. If we are working on improvisation, learn vocabulary by memorizing solos from recordings and then analyzing them after the fact. While it is very important to have an understanding of theory and even have good piano chops, it is very, very important to have listened to the music so much that you have an internalized understanding and passion for the language and tradition.
CG: What recordings have you been listening to lately?
SW: Lately, I have rediscovered some wonderful J.J. Johnson recordings. They are from a series of big band records that he made in the 1960’s and have been reissued on CD under the titles “J.J. Johnson With big Band” and “The Total J.J.” [both on RCA] The charts are mostly his own arrangements [the only exception is a wonderful rewrite of “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson on “J.J. Johnson With big Band”] , and his playing is absolutely hip! If you ever want to be inspired by the pure elegance of perfect melodic improvisation, check out any J.J. record! Another aspect of enjoying these recordings is learning how J.J. featured himself with big band as I plan my own CD project for next year.
Also, in doing research for the Jimmy Pankow article, I have been having a ball listening to all the great Chicago recordings! Jimmy’s trombone writing is so fun and distinctive, it has been a real treat to listen to some of that again. I am transcribing his solo on Robert Lamm’s instrumental “Hanky Panky” [Chicago VII] for the ITA article; if you haven’t heard Jimmy stretch out on something, I highly recommend checking that one out!. Other favorites are “Mother” from Chicago III and the tunes “Night and Day” and “Chicago” from the Night and Day Chicago & plus Big Band CD.
As I get ready for the writing project, I am also in the habit of listening to recordings to get new textures and voicings in my head. Some wonderful fare lately for me include: The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Mosaic Collection [anything by Thad or Brookmeyer from this era is sooo good!], the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations [“Sketches of Spain” et al.], and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful “Both Sides Now” album with fantastic arrangements by Vince Mendoza.
CG: It’s great to have you on the Edwards Team. Thanks for taking the time to let us get to know you a little better.
SW: Thank you, Christan.