It's not unusual to find trombonist Sam Savage, Reggie Pace and Bryan Hooten at the same gig, either on the stage or in the audience. Individually and in various combinations, they've played a central role in Richmond's brass renaissance.
It's difficult to say exactly when Richmond became a jazz trombone town. After Tommy Dorsey, the last superstar trombonist bandleader, died in 1956, the glory days of the long horn seemed to have passed.
There has always been a sparing portion of great 'bone players on the local scene -- section players in big bands, sidemen in groups fronted by "modern" leads like saxes, trumpets or guitars. Trombonists have also played leading roles on the local scene, notably NPR jazz program host Peter Solomon and VCU jazz studies head Antonio Garcia. But the instrument itself has been second string.
In other words, the stage was set for a trombone resurgence, realized locally in a tangle of brass-saturated bands including Yo Momma's Brass Band, Oregon Hill Funk All-Stars, the No BS Brass Band, Fight the Big Bull, The Big Payback and Bungalo6 and embodied by Savage, Pace and Hooten, whose intertwining paths seem to have wended through them all. Their gigs are like buses: If you miss one, another will come along shortly.
Savage recalls a very different scene when he arrived in 1999. "Everything was pretty straight-ahead when I first got to VCU," he says. "But then people like Brian Jones, Taylor Barnett and Daniel Clarke started writing original music and moving away from the traditional stuff. That tempted me to write because it seemed cool."
Savage in turn inspired Reggie Pace, who arrived two years later. "I saw Sam playing, and I thought that's who I want to be," Pace says. He got his chance in the blisteringly creative horn section of the original Devil's Workshop Big Band, the freewheeling forerunner of the area's big brass movement.
Hooten brought an abstract, experimental, cutting-edge approach when he arrived three years ago. "No one else was doing an avant-garde thing before him," Pace says. "He opened a lot of eyes."
Instead of becoming rivals, the three players became friends. They played together briefly in the VCU Jazz Orchestra and now variously recombine at local gigs Hooten and Pace in Fight the Big Bull, for example, and Savage and Pace in the No BS and Yo Momma's brass bands.
Each has a distinctive voice. Savage favors thoughtful legato lines, smoothly moving through ideas with deceptive ease. Hooten's playing is more angular, building architectures of counterbalanced, cantilevered forms. Pace unleashes highly physical, percussive funk that is joyously hard-edged, sometimes using the full range of the instrument, from low blats and growls to high squeals, in a single, visceral burst.
And each is quick to note that they aren't the only players around, citing, among others, the very capable Reggie Chapman, Pete Anderson, Todd Whittaker and the brilliant Stefan Demetriadis (whose dependable tardiness is celebrated in the title of the No BS CD "Where Is Stefan?").
One advantage of the trombone's previous low profile is the sonic frontier still out there to explore. "It's not like the sax or the piano," Savage says. "There is a lot that hasn't yet been heard." He envisions a future project, Triple Barrel, that features all three players.
Until then, Richmond audiences can sample the astounding range of power, texture and style that can be produced by buzzing lips through a shifting length of tubing. "All you are really doing is moving air," Hooten says.
"Everyone thinks the trombone is the hardest instrument to play," Savage says. "Maybe we should keep letting them think that." S