Brian Scarborough is a trombonist and composer with influences that include two of the great centers of jazz in the Midwest: Kansas City and Chicago. From the Kansas City area where he grew up and currently lives, performs and teaches, he’s steeped in the legacy of big bands and territory bands as well as his contemporaries in the still lively jazz scene there. In Chicago, with its ongoing legacy of continually pushing the boundaries of jazz and improvisation, he cut his teeth as an improvising trombonist and attending DePaul University. These threads and his own ideas come together in his debut release Sunflower Song.
The first two tracks spotlight the different threads that come together in Scarborough’s compositions and their realization by his ensemble: saxophonist Matt Otto, guitarist Adam Schlozman, bassist Jeff Harshbarger, and drummer Brian Steever. The opener “This One’s For John” showcases the fine ensemble work, the two horns and guitar putting forth a sound that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. Otto’s sax and Scarborough’s trombone romp through the uplifting tune, Schlozman’s guitar adding color and commentary, with Harshbarger and Steever laying down a swinging groove. Both horns lay down solid solos, too, and the entire rhythm section adds color and mood. Then “OK, Here We Go” stretches out into more adventurous harmonic and rhythmic territory. Jazz fans have lots of examples of synergy between tenor and trumpet, but meetings of tenor and trombone are a bit more rare, and Scarborough and Otto provide some chewy harmonies here and elsewhere.
“City Lights,” inspired by a visit to the eponymous bookstore in San Francisco, is a jaunty bop exploration full of angular melodicism that opens with a nice lead section on guitar. The languid title track explores Scarborough’s feelings about his home territory on the Great Plains: “While many see the area as ‘flyover country,’ ” Brian says, “those that choose to live and create here are well aware that there is a tremendous amount of beauty in the area, the people, and the cities we call home.”
My favorite Scarborough trombone solo is on “The Owl,” an urbane bit of melodic post-bop. And things pick up even more when Otto joins in on a contrapuntal line that leads into his own suave solo that gives onto a calming coda. “Tick Tock” puts the rhythm section front and center as its title would suggest, with strong cymbal and snare work from Steever, while Scarborough’s head soars over this solid rhythmic base and Schlozman has a solo with echoes of another midwestern guitarist Wes Montgomery. A muted trombone and bass intro lead into a brief bass solo, and then everyone gets a nice solo slot on the amusingly named hard bop tune “I Tolerate You.” Sharp sax-bone harmonies highlight “Willard’s Blues,” which at over eight minutes gives everyone room to stretch out – good listening among the musicians is really apparent on this one. And the album ends on the racy and brief(ish) “Empty Bottles,” which somebody ought to put some lyrics to.
Sunflower Song is a solid full-length debut for Scarborough and his ensemble. It’s great to see such top-notch composing, playing and improvising coming out of the heartland, where it has a long and storied history.