• Natalie Cressman

Bruce Fowler – The World’s First “Jam” Trombonist

The historical lineage of trombonists, period, is an obscure subject in of itself. Couple that with the nebulous concept of the jam band, and we have quite a murky field of study on our hands. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to define “jam” music and have arrived at the conclusion that it is less a concept of genre, and more of an aesthetic that I tend to define as highly improvisational, dynamic, and collaborative between musicians. The term “jam band”, instead of being a style of music in of itself, seems to denote a melting pot approach, drawing in influences as far reaching as Appalachian music and Indian raag and nearly everything in between. In general, fans of the “jam scene” are expected to be taken on a journey that is different every time when they go see live music, hence why jam fans will go to several shows of the same band in a row, as each night represents a vastly different experience to take in. Though some of the most prevalent musical cultures in jam music include rock and bluegrass, the emphasis on improvisation, and the extended length of said improvised sections, align jam very closely with the jazz tradition. So, it’s no surprise that some of the great horn players known to collaborate with jam bands come from that tradition (Branford Marsalis with the Grateful Dead is one example), as even today there isn’t a truly established “jam” language on brass or reed instruments.

The contributions of Frank Zappa & Mothers of Invention to the jam scene are evident. His compositions and recordings are a tour de force, bringing in disparate musical influences along with great humor and storytelling. This spirit, I feel, is still embodied today in the modern jam scene, though the influences and aesthetics, of course, shift from band to band. It would be hard to imagine what our musical world would look like if Zappa hadn’t left such a mark. Despite his indelible influence on music today, jam band fans are rarely able to identify some of the lesser known side musicians of his ensemble, as is often the case with Zappa’s trombonist, Bruce Fowler. Being one of the few trombonists in the orbit of the jam scene myself, folks will from time to time mention Fowler, usually along the lines of “that crazy trombonist in Zappa’s band.” As a young trombone player starting to collaborate with members of Phish, Umphrey’s McGee, the Grateful Dead, etc., Fowler was the only historical example I could find of trombone being a significant solo voice in this context, and he soon became a beacon of possibility to me. My jazz background had me accustomed to improvising over music with more harmonic motion, so it took some time to adjust to the often open-ended, harmonically static solo sections more typically found in jam music. Listening to Bruce Fowler in Zappa’s band was eye-opening and truly illuminated all the many possibilities available to me when soloing on a one chord jam for minutes on end.

But Bruce Fowler’s unique musical qualities and jaw-dropping virtuosity are often obscured by the density of Zappa’s compositions, along with the general weirdness, politically tinged commentary, and irreverence found in Zappa’s performance style. It seems that Fowler hasn’t been given the same reverence in the trombone community as his contemporaries on the instrument who toed the line and remained firmly planted in the jazz world. This could possibly be explained by the institutionalization of jazz that came about in the second half of the 20th century, specifically in the 70’s, when Mothers of Invention were most prominently recording and touring. Not one of my teachers at any level of jazz study mentioned him to me except my dad, who is a big fan and played me an unforgettable live DVD of Zappa & The Mothers of Invention where Bruce was heavily featured. Through the lens of today, Zappa and his collaborators are seen as somewhat separate from the jazz tradition they all came up in, when in my mind they share many more similarities to fusion-era Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis than to, say, the Grateful Dead.

Bruce Fowler was born in 1947 in Salt Lake City, Utah and is still writing and making music today, based in Los Angeles. He lives by the famous Duke Ellington quote that “There are only two kinds of music, Good and Bad!,” and thus has spent his career playing and writing all types of music. He attended the renowned jazz program at North Texas State University in 1967, and that summer joined the historically lauded Woody Herman band, touring Europe and the U.S. From there he went on to play with Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and of course Zappa. He has also orchestrated, written, and performed music for films, including notable releases like “Batman Returns”, “Pearl Harbor”, “Spy Kids”, and “Shrek”. He comes from a family of gifted musicians, and sometimes performs with them as The Fowler Brothers. His father, William Fowler, was a well-known jazz educator, and his strong upbringing in the jazz tradition is evident in his work with Zappa.

Despite the technical demands of Zappa’s music, Bruce plays with a very relaxed and effortless approach. Of course, his ease in the extreme upper register is one of his most remarkable qualities of his playing, made more impressive in the context of a raucous rock band, but it seems he is able to play at a moderate dynamic level and still be heard over the heavy-hitting drums and thick textures. His dynamic restraint might contribute to his ability to play high without overblowing or tiring out his chops. He paces his solos carefully, and his moments to shine in the band often entail a dynamic shift to a softer volume, operating as a palate cleanser between heavier, louder sections. This allows him the freedom to build his ideas organically and take his time building intensity. His speed and agility allow him to execute very intricate shapes and ideas on the trombone, making it appear easy. He definitely employs double/doodle tonguing to articulate both the lightning fast written passages of Zappa’s compositions and his own improvisatory language. Another component of his playing that I find captivating is his flexibility and use of wide interval jumps, which is by far one of the most challenging aspects of the trombone but, when done well, can also be incredibly beautiful and lyrical.

Lastly, I’d like to note that he may be one of the first trombonists to truly employ double-time bebop language in a backbeat context, and this hybridized rhythmic concept was certainly forward-thinking for the early 1970’s. There is an avant-garde element to Bruce Fowler’s approach, and yet his time studying and playing with jazz heavy-weights is also clear as day, in the linear bebop language he also uses. His rhythmic sense certainly distinguishes his style from someone such as Fred Wesley, the main other jazz trombonist of note who was innovative on the instrument beyond the jazz genre. Soloing in Zappa’s band, Bruce at times takes the liberty of being rhythmically abstract, overlaying cascading, angular, melodic shapes freely over the drum beat rather than adhering directly to the rhythmic grid. Fred Wesley is one of my other big influences, and by contrast he strictly deals in syncopations directly connected to the groove.

Here’s a link to a brilliant live performance of Frank Zappa and The Mothers Of Invention, Live at the Roxy from 1973, featuring my favorite iteration of his band, with Bruce Fowler on trombone, as well as his brothers Walt Fowler on trumpet and Tom Fowler on bass: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2a0ux53dKY (trombone solo starts at 21:14). Halfway through his solo, Bruce takes apart his trombone and plays without the bell, still able to execute musical ideas and lines with astonishing ease, the missing part posing no hindrance whatsoever to him conveying the ideas in his head. George Duke takes the other half of his trombone and ekes out a few sounds through the bell for a few moments of interplay at the end of the solo. And then the band seamlessly transitions to an intricate marimba pattern that ushers in an epic odd-metered guitar solo section.

Along with Zappa, I think Bruce Fowler’s playing is still ahead of its time even now, and any time I am feeling creatively stagnant, I look to him for inspiration on how to bring the unexpected when improvising. I feel I owe it to him to give credit where it is due, and have more folks recognize his contributions to the art form. Hopefully his playing will inspire and delight you too.


PHOTO: Lauren Desberg