Trust. Risk. Reward.

Trust. Risk. Reward.

Gerry Pagano and I met in the summer of 1987, when I was Bass Trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he was a Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center.  As Bass Trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony since 1995 , he is a superb player and a quality person, and over the years, we’ve kept in contact and we’ve followed each other’s careers, although we didn’t have an opportunity to meet up again until 2014. At that time, Gerry came to Arizona to collaborate on a recording project with his friend, jazz trombonist – jazz alto trombonist, actually – Mike Lake, on an album that became Roads Less Traveled. Since he was going to be in the area, I invited Gerry to come to Arizona State University to give a masterclass – I was, at that time, ASU’s Trombone Professor. To start off the class, Gerry and I performed Tommy Pederson’s duet, The Crimson Collop, and later that day, returned to my office, made a video recording of that piece, and posted it on YouTube. It’s received over 21,000 views.

Such was the seed that led Gerry and me to come together earlier in this month to record a new album of duets for bass trombone. In light of the popularity of our The Crimson Collop video, we thought it might be fun to record all of the bass trombone duets written by Tommy Pederson. But as we continued talking about it, we decided a more diverse selection of repertoire might be more interesting; we then both started bringing other repertoire ideas to the table. Plenty of Pederson, of course, but also Renaissance duets, a canon by Telemann and some Bartok violin duets. Gerry suggested a movement from Bach’s Concerto for two violins in d minor, a piece I hadn’t played since I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in the early 70s. But we needed more music.

It was at that point that Gerry began talking more about Mike Lake. Early in our conversations, Gerry suggested Mike as our recording engineer since Mike has a studio in Arizona. While I knew of Mike, I couldn’t say that I knew him, but I was happy to take Gerry’s suggestion to involve Mike in the project; we did, after all, need a recording engineer and if Gerry had already worked with Mike – in fact, they have known each other for many decades, having been roommates for a time – that was fine with me. As our conversations continued, Gerry began proposing more involvement for Mike, such as the possibility that Mike might play trombone on something on the album. Gerry also also talked about how Mike could “add things” to some tracks. I honestly didn’t know where this was going. Having made many solo recordings myself over the years, I had a very clear idea of the kinds of things I wanted this new album to be about, and I was used to being the one who put forth ideas and called the shots. What Gerry was proposing was uncharted territory for me. Gerry was asking me to trust him and Mike, and take some risks as ideas kept flowing.

And, so, I offered trust and embraced the risk. Then began new conversations of ideas from Mike. Overdubbing ourselves on some pieces, adding different sounds as background in some cases, both musical and non-musical textures and treatments. Acoustic, recorded, and computer generated things. Percussion, voices, Hammond organ, sound effects, synthesizer, harpsichord. Mike offered to compose a piece for Gerry and me, one that would feature him improvising for a chorus, and he asked if I also could improvise – on  serpent – on his tune. Things were moving at the speed of light and I felt caught up in a tsunami – a constant, relentless push – of ideas. Having given Mike my trust, I went with it to see what would happen.

Trust can lead to risk, and risk can bring unexpected rewards. And that is where I stand today. After three days of recording sessions – days that included filming a music video in the Sonoran Desert about this project with the help of Mike’s drone – we are in the process of evaluating Mike’s editing of the tracks and seeing where things lead. Last night, Mike sent along the first edit of Tommy Pederson’s duet, Rumble on 6th Street. It’s a dramatic piece that always seemed to me to be about a fight, like the rumble in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Prelude, call to arms, sizing up of each side with a tentative dance, conflict, pulling back, fighting again, and then finally retreating in ambiguity. Having trusted Mike’s judgment in several other things he had suggested, it was time for me to put an idea on the table: What about putting some street sounds at the beginning of the duet, sounds that would bring the listener in with anticipation to Gerry’s and my playing of the duet? Knowing Tommy Pederson (1920-1998) as I did from our many phone conversations and letters, I thought that if Tommy was alive, he would embrace something outside the box like this. I pitched the idea to Mike and he ran. He ran fast. His creativity exploded, and yesterday, he sent us the first edit of his enhanced track to Tommy’s great duet.

I was stunned by what I heard. Mike found some recordings of urban street sounds. He put them together: shouting, cars, sirens, frenzied screams, trucks. The sound of thunder, a man yelling, “Put that down! Put that down!” A faint, musical drone of voices emerged as Gerry and I began to play. And then the most shocking thing. As the duet ended, I became aware once again of the intensity of the street sound. Then, suddenly, more thunder and, finally a heavy rain, before everything faded away with a final sound of a police siren. It was shocking. It was like the rain came to wash everything away. Did the rumble happen? Did the police get there? Who won? Did we even play? Blood was washed away, footprints disappeared. Evidence was gone. Tommy’s ambiguous final cadence gave way to the strong, cleansing rain.

In this version of our recording of Rumble on 6th Street, which you can hear by clicking the play button above, Gerry is playing the top part (left channel) and I am playing the bottom part (right channel).

Trust. Risk. Reward. This is something I have been learning in a new way as I’ve been dealing in very close, intense ways with Mike’s creativity. Yes, he’s an excellent  recording engineer. Yes, he is a superb jazz trombonist (you will hear his improvisation skills on his own composition for our album, Devils and Angels). He’s also a great guy to talk with and be around. But there are not words in any language I know to describe what goes on in his mind as he thinks through ideas that bring new, different, interesting, challenging, provocative, or unusual things to a project for which I already thought I had the last musical word. When our album is released – its provisional title is Fratres, Latin for “brothers,” taken from the piece of that name by Arvo Pärt that we recorded – it will be something the likes of which the trombone world has never, ever heard. We are making a new kind of album for this unique moment in time, a recording with many new and unexpected kinds of things. Because of Mike, it is something very different than my mind originally conceived. Once I decided to offer trust and take risks, I then began to be rewarded in ways I had not been able to imagine. And I have a very fertile imagination.

We’re not done with this. There is much more work ahead before the album is released. But as each day brings new things to consider, evaluate, change, improve, and approve, my excitement is building for what Gerry, Mike, and I are doing together. Hold on. We’re all on a wild ride and there’s no net below. But I know my brothers – Gerry and Mike – are with me in this and we are there for each other, encouraging, provoking, and experimenting. Thanks to Mike Lake, each day dawns with new things on the plate, and this is turning out to be a very satisfying meal. We look forward to sharing it with you.

[This article originally appeared in a slightly modified format on September 1, 2017 as a guest article on Mike Lake’s Blog,; it may be seen by clicking here.]