CD Reviews

The Motion Poets' ace trombonist, Mark Miller, returns from his New York City digs to reassemble his other band, Slide Huxtable, for a CD Release Party. The appropriately named "The Return Of Slide Huxtable" album co-stars underrated guitarist Bill Bergmann, and the omnipresent Bates brothers, Chris (bass) and J.T. (drums). The CD is intriguing, with stellar original chart writing (check out Miller's beautifully mournful "For J.J.," in honor of all-time trombone hero, J.J. Johnson), abundant first-rate solos, and enviable group cohesion. Toss in some off-the-beaten-track cover choices -- "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" done up in reggae for example -- and Slide Huxtable's return proves welcome.
Tom Surowicz, Minneapolis Star Tribune

With a moniker borrowed from the trombone-wielding father of Bill Cosby's character on The Cosby Show, this mostly Minnesota jazz quartet plays with an authority that outstrips the superficiality of sitcoms, but would likely please jazz aficionado Cosby. The slide in question here is manned by Mark Miller, an erstwhile Minneapolitan who gigged with such locals as the Motion Poets and Happy Apple before departing for New York and regular employment with Broadway musicals. The band was launched almost a decade ago as an offshoot of the Motion Poets, with Miller (who was then still in town), guitarist Bill Bergmann, bassist Chris Bates, and drummer J.T. Bates, the last three with dozens of local and national credits on their stuffed musical résumés. This gig marks the release of the sporadic band's debut album, The Return of Slide Huxtable, a fine mix of originals and covers running the gamut from straight-ahead stuff to slithery funk, a reggae lurch through the old Broadway standard "Whatever Lola Wants Lola Gets," and odd-metered ethereal excursions. Throughout, Miller's trombone sparks the sound with its gritty muscularity, while Bergmann infuses the pieces with an elegant array of ever-shifting vibes, and the two Bates conspire on rambunctious rhythmic variations.
— Rick Mason, City Pages

Not only are today's local jazz groups often ignored by our young music bloggers, but the artists who stray outside bebop's boundaries are generally neglected by the older fans as well. Creative musicians can't win, but listeners can't lose with this enjoyably innovative quartet.  Slide Huxtable is the brainchild of trombonist Mark Miller, with rhythm support from JT and Chris Bates. All three were members of vaunted '90s bop sextet Motion Poets. With the addition of pan-global guitar artist Bill Bergmann, they create a spacious, sensual bounce mixed with peaceful contemplations reminiscent of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way.  This disc is beyond easy categorization, but never beyond comprehension.
Jim Meyer, Minnesota Monthly
No doubt most Americans today would have trouble believing that just over half a century ago, the two most popular, commercially successful musicians were trombonists. And not long after the stardom of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, the instrument would attain a similar lofty status among a smaller, jazz- aware public thanks to the consummate artistry of J. J. Johnson. But since the 1950s, the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments has had to struggle to gain listeners' attention let alone respect. While Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks, along with European players like Albert Mangelsdorff and up-comer Nils Wogram, at least manage to register on the radar screen, recordings by masters such as Carl Fontana, Frank Rosolino and Bill Watrous are so few and far between (not to mention scarce) that a young trombonist could be forgiven for taking up plumbing.

 Try telling that to Mark Miller, who has released an important, potentially groundbreaking CD featuring his trombone as solo horn in the spartan company of guitar, bass, and drums. As the title implies, Miller is no overnight phenomenon. He was on the road for ten years with The Motion Poets, a sextet originating in Minneapolis and including emerging trumpet star Matt Shulman. The Motion Poets dissolved, and since then Miller, after a tour with Bllly Joel's "Movin' Out", has taken up residence in New York City. But The Return Of Slide Huxtable is an inarguable success thanks to the presence of three members from the original sextet, an ensemble Downbeat magazine once profiled as practically the “only remaining road band playing jazz.”

Besides Miller, the remaining players are a gifted pair of brothers who are, not surprisingly, musical twins: bassist Chris Bates and drummer J. T. Bates. Both instrumentalists are, like Miller, endowed not merely with well-honed chops but with an exquisite sensitivity to one another's labors that could come only from living and playing together for twelve or more years. This is definitely not a recording that could have been made by a quickly assembled cast of all-stars, even though guitarist Bill Bergmann is a relatively recent addition. Under the tutelage of Miller and the two Bates, the talented and responsive ex-Berklee student is equally effective in his roles as story-teller, tone colorist, and empathetic contributor.

 Although Slide Huxtable is an “acoustic” ensemble, the colors and tempos are sufficiently various and fresh to suggest some of the most intricately evocative 1970s work by the “electric” Miles Davis and Weather Report ensembles. Frequently the leader will stick with simple, repeated riffs or sustained ostinato passages while the Bates brothers supply a high-energy undercurrent, with J. T. especially sensitive to changing dynamics and textures, occasionally dropping out altogether.

The group's ear for shifting colors especially comes to the fore on Miller's “For J.J.,” a slow, haunting lament reminiscent of J. J. Johnson's own “Lament.” Imagine the sound of melody played simultaneously by trombone, crescendoing guitar tones coaxed (not picked) from the instrument, and full arco bass. The effect would be reminiscent of electro groups using computers and synths were it not so much more compelling, especially with the melodic drums of J. T. Bates supplying their own counter motives.

“Whatever Lola Wants,” the Adler and Ross show-stopper from Damn Yankees, brings out a playful side of Miller, at once seductive, surreal, and not a little spooky—much like the Circe played by Gwen Verdon in both the Broadway production and subsequent screen adaptation or, perhaps more accurately, the off-center Isabella Rossellini of David Lynch's Blue Velvet. On Chris Bates' “Warren Ashtabula” Miller sets aside the suggestive ways of Lola in favor of the louder solicitations of the New Orleans sporting-house madames. The beat is funky and the spirits high, as the trombonist demurs before letting loose with some plain old gut-bucket testifying, full-steam ahead tailgate style.

After a stately, reverently intoned chorale, Miller's “Let,” the trombonist really lets go with “Bop Slop,” a breakneck-speed original based on “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. It's such tempos that have earned the trombone its reputation as a cumbersome instrument, putting most players to the ultimate test. J. J. Johnson passed it through the inspired placement of spare but judiciously selected notes; Carl Fontana, on the other hand, used his talented tongue to simulate the speed of any valve instrument, simultaneously cutting down on the volume of the horn. Miller, if anything, increases the volume and forcefulness of his sound, cutting loose with a nearly out-of-control but exhilarating solo played in a portamento style—sort of a Jimmy Knepper on steroids.

The concluding tune, Dave Holland's “Blues For C. M.,” allows the leader to display some more of his unique ways of making his new S. E. Shires trombone talk. Using the device introduced by the Ellington band's Sam Nanton—a plunger mute—Miller couples it with the “Freddie Hubbard wobble” (a trill using notes a third apart rather than a chromatic second). In the process, he both completes and supplements a miniature odyssey of the history of jazz trombone.

This is one of the more noteworthy, enjoyable trombone-plus-rhythm sessions since J. J. Johnson took a pianist, bass player and drummer with him into the studio to record Blue Trombone (Columbia, 1957). Welcome back, Slide Huxtable!
-- Sam Chell,

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