Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Tales of the trombone

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Twin Cities trombonist Dave Graf explores a variety of jazz styles on his new CD (Photo by Warren Sampson)
In the world of jazz, trombone players tend to be overlooked. It's the saxophonists, trumpeters and pianists who get all of the attention. But this weekend at the Artists Quartet in St. Paul, Twin Cities jazz trombonist Dave Graff gets a moment in the spotlight when he celebrates the release of his first CD, "Just Like That."

St. Paul, Minn. — The lack of respect trombone players seem to get can be found in the jokes Dave Graf likes to tell.

“How does a trombone player make his car more aerodynamic? Take off the Domino’s sign."

"What’s the definition of an optimist? A trombonist with a pager.”

Q: What’s the definition of an optimist? A: A trombonist with a pager.”
- Trombone joke collected by Dave Graf

Dave Graf calls trombonists the Rodney Dangerfields of the band. While most people know the names of such jazz legends as trumpeter Miles Davis or saxophonist John Coltrane, they will likely draw a blank at the mention of great trombone players like Jack Teagarden or J.J. Johnson.

Yet Graf admits that his biggest musical influences weren't his fellow trombonists. "It’s kind of an awkward instrument," he says. "Trombonists are plagued by the slide. It makes it a challenge to articulate notes at fast tempos. I’ve spent my whole life just trying to make it not sound like a trombone. I'm trying to keep up with saxophonists, trumpet players and pianists and the kind of lines they can play.”

Dave Graf grew up in Roseville where he started on the trombone in 4th grade. However the instrument he really wanted to play was the flute because he thought it would be easier to carry on the bus.

"The band director told me that I couldn't play the flute because it's a girl's instrument. This was the mid-60s," Graf explains. "My mom volunteered the information that I had a slide whistle when I was little and was able to pick out tunes on it. The band director latched onto that and said, 'You’d make a good trombone player.' At first I spent most of my time making diving aircraft noises with it. I didn’t get serious about music until about the middle of high school."

After high school, Dave Graf established himself on the Twin Cities jazz scene. In 1981 he moved to New York City, but returned after five years because he soured on the city and wanted to be closer to family. Graf is a graphic artist during the day, but he's busy several nights a week with various bands playing everything from swing to be-bop to latin.

These different styles of jazz are all heard on his new CD, "Just Like That." The CD, Graf's first as a leader, has just been released on the small Bloomington-based label, Artegra, which has put out a handful of releases from local jazz musicians. Artegra founder Warren Sampson asked around to find out who he should record next. The name that kept coming up was Dave Graf.

“I called Dave and said, 'I’ve seen you and heard from other people that your sense of musicianship and your sense of style is very deep. What would you like to do for a record? Who would you like to work with? What kind of styles would you like to cover?'"

The styles Dave Graf decided to explore range from big band era songs, to Stevie Wonder to jazz standards including pianist Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica." Monk was among the non-trombonists Graf says influenced his playing.

“Consciously or unconsciously I didn’t want to go out of my way to copy too much from any trombone player," Graf says. "I was afraid I would sound like a pale imitation of somebody else. So I thought that if I could adapt things I heard trumpet or saxophone players doing to my instrument that I might come up with a style that was a little more original."

Trumpeter Dave Jensen is one of the musicians playing on Dave Graf's new CD. Jensen teaches at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul and is a member of the band Hornheads. Jensen and Graf have been friends since high school when they were both studying music and discovering jazz together. He's pleased that Graf has finally released his own CD.

"Dave has had this music pent up inside him for a long, long time," Jensen says. "He has played on many, many, many albums by others. When people want music performed the way it should sound, they go to Dave. It’s important that Dave release all this music that he’s had in his head for all of these years. He’s got a lot more than this going up there too, but it’s a pleasure to finally see this come out."

Trumpeter Dave Jensen is among the musicians joining Dave Graf at the Artists Quarter Friday and Saturday to celebrate the release of the Twin Cities trombone player's first CD, "Just Like That."

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