Robert Bachner is one of Austria’s most active freelance trombonists, an accomplished bandleader and composer, and a long-time member of the internationally acclaimed Vienna Art Orchestra. Having released, over the past three years, two superb quintet CDs and a third by his hard swinging big band, Bachner has decided on something quite different this time – a trombone-piano duo recording that showcases the talents of his friend, pianist-composer Helmar Hill. “Helmar and I have played together in various ensembles for almost fifteen years now,” Robert recalls, “mostly with the Upper Austrian Jazz Orchestra and the crazy low brass band, Heavy Tuba. Helmar Hill is a truly outstanding composer and arranger, I think, and it is my great pleasure to present his wonderful music on this recording.”
“What makes Helmar unique,” Robert continues, “is that he is a true multi-instrumentalist. He started with piano and accordion, then later studied clarinet at the conservatory in Linz and also took up saxophone. He studied composition at the conservatory in Vienna and finished his studies summa cum laude. Later on he taught himself to play trumpet, and for years has been playing lead trumpet in a friend’s big band. So Helmar really knows how to write for the various instruments – what is playable and what sounds good – and I always greatly enjoy playing his music.”
The first Helmar Hill composition presented on this CD, A New Job, originally was commissioned by Heavy Tuba. In that version Helmar played melodica rather than piano, so, he explains, “this is ‘a new job’ for me.” His melody is bright and lively, in many ways reminiscent of the tuneful movie themes from the 1960s and ’70s penned by the likes of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel. Helmar opens the track with a lush rubato chorus, and then Robert enters in tempo, stating the theme with a commanding presence.
The centerpiece of this CD is Helmar’s three-movement concerto for trombone and piano, Ein feiner Zug, a strikingly original work that blends classical composition with jazz improvisation. The title, as Robert points out, “is a clever word game in German. ‘Ein feiner Zug’ actually means something like ‘this is very nice (of you)’ or ‘a fine habit (of yours).’ But ‘Zug’ in German also refers to the trombone slide. So it also means ‘a fine (trombone) slide.’ Anyone who reads the original German title and who knows about the trombone will smile.”
Robert, who commissioned this composition from Helmar in 2002 believes, quite rightly, that there are few, if any, comparable works in existence. And so, he predicts, “this concerto will excite the trombone world and will become part of the trombone repertoire.” Robert rises to the challenge of interpreting this boldly unique piece, and throughout Helmar is more than an accompanist – he is a true collaborator.
The first movement, “Aufgewühlt,” (“Agitated”) depicts a condition of emotional turmoil, of not knowing which way to turn. The pensive, brooding beginning quickly becomes restless and moves in many different directions. The second movement, “Traurig” (“Sad”), evokes an air of solitude and melancholy, and Robert employs an appropriately dark timbre. The tempo and mood brighten considerably for the third movement, “Am Ende wird alles recht” (“In the End Everything Will Be All Right”). Although the churning rhythm seems to suggest underlying toil and struggle, ultimately there is triumph. As Helmar says, summing up this remarkable piece, “There is always hope.”
The moody, minor-key ballad, Brasstime, the first of three Robert Bachner compositions on this disc, also appears, in a very different arrangement, of course, on Robert’s recent big band recording, Moments of Noise. With plunger in hand, he shows himself to be a master of communication, turning notes into words, and music into drama.
Originally written by Robert for a sextet, and also recorded by his big band (in an arrangement by Helmar), One More Time has a slinky, cat-like theme. Helmar’s confident block chord-laced solo displays his innate rhythmic drive and sense of swing. You never for a moment miss the bass and drums.
Helmar’s composition, Greetings from Kenny, was written originally for big band in 2000 as a dedication for the seventieth birthday of Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. In their solos Robert and Helmar are fittingly upbeat, displaying their common admiration and affection for this internationally respected jazz master.
The closer, Robert’s original, Standard of Reference, is a lilting jazz waltz that he previously performed on his acclaimed 2006 quintet CD, Travelling Hard. As the great American jazz trombonist, Frank Rosolino, did so often, Robert uses a cup mute, capturing his idol’s deft phrasing and fluidity, but maintaining his own musical identity. Once again, he and Helmar engage in the type of insightful interplay and eloquent dialogue that characterizes this entire CD.
It’s always exciting to be introduced to a major talent like Helmar Hill. Robert Bachner must be applauded for bringing the music of this exceptional composer-pianist to the wider world of jazz, as well as, of course, continuing to keep us aware of his own formidable playing and writing gifts.
Author of Top Brass: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz’s Leading Brass Players and Reed All About It: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz’s Leading Reed Players (Boptism Music Publishing: boptism.com), and host of Just Jazz (wnti.org)