Because it’s Halloween time, I feel bound to lead this review of the third album by Jennifer Wharton’s trombone-forward ensemble Bonegasm with her arrangement of the Mexican folk song “La Bruja” (the witch). It’s as good a place as any to start, because this delightful, slightly dark tune showcases everything that Bonegasm is about: Wharton’s skills at arrangement and playing (and her ever-growing strength at improvising), the band’s sharp instincts and sense of fun, and the great sound of several trombones blowing together in harmony.
This is a very fun track with a spooky intro followed by a melody with an immediately recognizable Latin feel as Wharton leads on the head with her bass ‘bone, followed by the rest of the horns: John Fedchock, Nate Mayland and Alan Ferber. Pianist Michael Eckroth shows some impressive montuno skills taking the first solo, followed by one more trombone solo as bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Don Peretz lay down the the Latin groove.
For this program Wharton has recorded her own compositions for the first time, alongside her own choices of works by other women composers that Bonegasm commissioned to write for the album: Vanessa Perica, Miho Hazama, Carolina Calvache, Natalie Cressman and Nadje Noordhuis. ““Dare I say, ‘I’m a feminist’?” says Wharton. “I didn’t have any female role models coming up, so I’m trying to encourage young women. Then I looked at my band and realized it’s me and a bunch of dudes – just like most other bands I’m in – so I decided the answer was to commission only female composers for the third album.”
It leads off with Wharton’s own “Be Normal,” which was arranged as a birthday gift by her bandmate (and husband) John Fedchock.
It’s followed by Australian composer and conductor Vanessa Perica’s “In Our Darkest Hour,” inspired by the United States’ political turmoil of 2020. It’s the longest piece on the album at over seven minutes (which is fitting – that was one very long year), with Wharton once again leading with her moaning bass horn on the somber melody, joined at intervals by the somber harmonies of her companions. Some of those harmonies are discordant, again fitting the subject. The pace and performances become more urgent as the song progresses, with some soulful solos helping paint the sonic picture of the whirlwind of emotions that characterized that year for many of us.
In addition to “Be Normal” Wharton also composed the hectic “Virtual Reality,” which I find a little unfocused; and the strutting, bluesy “Mama’s Alright,” a tribute to trombone pioneer Melba Liston, based on a fragment of one of Liston’s tunes. And Wharton arranged the lovely ballad “Anita” in addition to “La Bruja.”
A couple of real highlights are rising young composer and conductor Miho Hazama’s “Norhala” and Natalie Cressman’s Brazilian-style “Menina Sozinha,” (girl on her own). “Norhala” is the most modernist piece, inspired by the 1920 fantasy novel The Metal Monster – this one sounds dark, hard, metallic, like something out of early 20th century modernist composition but with strong elements of jazz and even rock.”
Cressman’s piece on the other hand is joyous and samba-like, the trombones’ counterpoint seeming to mimic the propulsive rhythms of a samba drum corps. And Wharton and crew close it out with a bit of fun in the shape of the New Orleans style romp “Coop’s Condiments” by Australian-born trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis. As she did on her debut release Bonegasm Wharton has a bit of fun and sings on the closing track about the tasty add-ons found on the tables of the Cajun restaurant Coop’s Place.
Throughout, the horn section’s virtuosity is a high point as they move smoothly between counterpoint and harmonized passages that alternately startle and comfort the listener. If you like brass ensembles, you’ll love this trombone choir led by Wharton and her deep-throated instrument that growls, grumbles and groans with palpable soul. It’s not ground-breaking, but Grit & Grace is, like Wharton, a winning combination of gritty and graceful.