Wednesday, March 27, 2013


            They called Al Grey Fab because that's what he was, fabulous. One of my prize possessions is a vinyl copy of an album he recorded with J.J. Johnson, Thing Are Getting Better All The Time.  I've had it since the mid-1980's and it was an introduction to one of the all time greats.  At the time, my horn had been gathering dust since high school and my knowledge of trombonists was limited. When CD's came out, a couple of the first I got were Count Basie's with Al Grey solos. From then on, if I were granted the wish of being able to play like just one guy, it might be him.
            The first time I ever heard Al live was at the old One Step Down, in Washington, D.C.  Sometime in the '90's, I was visiting a friend in Alexandria and, by chance, saw an ad in the Washington Post for Al's performance that night. I told Cindy (that's our friend Cindy, not my wife Cynthia) that this was one of my musical heroes and we absolutely had to go hear him. Off we went to Foggy Bottom and when we got to the club, the only seats left were at the small bar. As we sat down and ordered drinks, I glanced at the smallish guy to my right and realized this was the man himself. All of a sudden I was like a giddy little kid and nudged Cindy, "That's him, that's Al Grey."

            At the end of his first set I worked up the nerve to say hello and Al talked to me like he'd known me for years (just like Buster Cooper- I think it's a trombone thing).  This was right after Sarah Vaughn had died of lung cancer and another young guy, a trombonist paying his respects, happened to mention it. Al's response was, "We all told her, Sassy, you smokin' too much." I've told this story a thousand times because it was the first time I'd ever met a musician who, to me, was like a rock star. And here he was, making like I was one of the guys and knew just what he meant.
            When we lived in New Jersey, Al was always playing someplace nearby and I went to hear him every chance I got, once dragging Cynthia (that's my wife, not our friend) down to Philly during a snow storm.  What always struck me was how little pressure he put on the mouthpiece along with the seeming ease with which he worked the slide and plunger. Al Grey's signature was his use of the plunger mute, an ordinary toilet plunger (unsoiled, of course) and the genesis of a guitar player's wah-wah pedal. This is an art in itself and Al was the acknowledged master.
            One of the coolest aspects of my time at USF was getting to hang out with a few of the big names of the jazz world. Frank Foster, the great saxophonist, composer and arranger for Count Basie, was in town for a concert and master classes and I was asked to drive him back and forth to his hotel. At some point I mentioned Al Grey and he told me that not only was Al an exciting soloist, he had the confidence and personality to match it. Sometimes, after a solo, when he knew he'd killed it, Al would sit down and challenge the rest of the band with, "Now what are you gonna do with that?"
            This recording I picked precisely for that reason. It's from The Count Basie album Fun Time and was recorded live at the Montreaux, Switzerland, Jazz Festival in 1975. This was one of the first CD's I ever owned and after hearing Al Grey's solo on Good Time Blues, I got the urge to try playing again. The tune was originally called I Needs To Be Bee's With (what a great title), was a feature for Al and this version contains the most exciting trombone playing I've ever heard. I've been listening to this for 30 years and never get tired of it because it's the single best lesson I know of on how to build a solo. Al starts at around the 3:20 mark, and you can hear Count Basie shouting his approval. Anyone hearing this who isn't moving, smiling, on his feet or reacting in some positive way should just have somebody throw dirt on him.
     Now what are you gonna do with that?

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