Bass trombonist/composer Jennifer Wharton exemplifies Grit & Grace on the stunning third album by her trombone-forward ensemble Bonegasm. Grit & Grace, due out October 20, 2023 via Sunnyside, features new compositions by women composers along with Wharton’s first original works and bold arrangements
“Jennifer Wharton's Bonegasm blows the doors wide open for the bass trombone. The horn itself may play from the bottom, but it can certainly operate at the top of the heap.” – Dan Bilawsky, All About Jazz
“[Bonegasm] captivates as it ranges between the intimate and the orchestral with plenty of whimsy... that makes listening to a bunch of low notes immensely enjoyable.” – Hrayr Attarian, Jazziz
In a 2019 article, Forbes Magazine decreed that the two characteristics women need most to thrive in the business world are “grit and grace.” Bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton has exemplified those qualities in the music she’s made with her brass-forward band Bonegasm since its 2019 debut. How else to explain Wharton’s venture into improvising and bandleading after years in the classical world, big band sections and Broadway orchestra pits? Or her dedication to giving the oft-neglected trombone – and more to the point, her own bass trombone – its place in the spotlight? And not least, that she’s done so with a tricky balance of elegant arrangements, bold musicianship, and audacious wit?
On her third outing with Bonegasm, Grit & Grace (due out October 20, 2023 via Sunnyside), Wharton demonstrates both attributes brilliantly on a vibrant and thrilling collection of new music, played with rousing vigor by the stellar ensemble: Wharton on bass trombone, along with trombonists John Fedchock, Nate Mayland and Alan Ferber, pianist Michael Eckroth, bassist Evan Gregor, drummer Don Peretz and, on half the tracks, percussionist Samuel Torres.
“That Forbes article really resonated with me,” Wharton says. “Here I am, a woman playing a ‘man’s instrument’ in jazz, which I started relatively late. I was looking for a way to make music mean more to me, so when I discovered I could have something of my own it changed my whole outlook on music. I just decided to put on my big girl pants and do this.”
The album provides a showcase not only for the leader’s grit and grace, but for that of several women composers that Bonegasm commissioned to write for the album: Vanessa Perica, Miho Hazama, Carolina Calvache, Natalie Cressman and Nadje Noordhuis. Wharton herself joins their ranks, contributing her own compositions to the band’s book for the first time.
“Dare I say, ‘I'm a feminist’?” muses Wharton. “I didn't have any female role models coming up, so I'm trying to encourage young women. Then I looked at my band and realized it's me and a bunch of dudes – just like most other bands I'm in – so I decided the answer was to commission only female composers for the third album.”
Australian composer/conductor Vanessa Perica contributes the moving “In Our Darkest Hour,” a somber yet determined rumination on the political turmoil that swept the U.S. in 2020. The piece is driven by Wharton’s low moan of a melody, a sole lamenting voice that gains in strength and momentum as her compatriots join in. Grammy-nominated composer/conductor Miho Hazama’s “Norhala” draws from an obscure source: A. Merritt’s 1920 fantasy novel The Metal Monster. Norhala is a mysterious character who can control lightning and bring metal objects to life, vividly illustrated by Hazama’s stirring, heavy metal-inspired piece.
Colombian-born pianist Carolina Calvache depicts a period in which the composer was faced with several daunting decisions, its dense layers capturing the sense of overwhelming uncertainty. Singer, songwriter and trombonist Natalie Cressman offers a Brazilian-tinged anthem in keeping with the album’s themes of beauty and solidarity with “Menina Sozinha,” which translates as “girl on her own.” The album ends with Australian-born trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis’ rollicking “Coop’s Condiments,” an homage to the titular Creole restaurant in New Orleans that features Wharton on lead vocals. The bandleader had previously flexed her pipes on Bonegasm’s self-titled debut, albeit in more of a tongue-in-cheek fashion. “I’m not a singer,” Wharton protests. “But I am a giant ham.”
With Grit & Grace, Wharton’s own name can now be added to the ranks of those rising star composers. The album opens with her own “Be Normal,” arranged as a birthday gift by bandmate (and husband) John Fedchock. The title is a bit of self-admonition from the composer over her own frenetic energy, with a wink to a joke from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. “My whole life I’ve wished I didn't feel this constant need to be productive, but I guess my brain is just abnormal.”
Wharton’s first-ever composition, “Virtual Reality,” is a tense and frenetic piece featuring venturesome solos by Alan Ferber and the leader. “Mama’s Alright” is a tribute to the pioneering trombonist Melba Liston, who worked with Randy Weston, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and other icons, but only recorded one album under her own name. Wharton builds on a fragment of Liston’s playing from that album to craft a rousing new piece fueled by Torres’ evocative percussion. The bandleader also arranged “Anita,” a hauntingly gorgeous Dick Oatts piece inspired by the death of a close friend’s daughter; and “La Bruja,” a sultry and venomous Mexican folk song provocatively performed by Salma Hayek in her biopic of painter Frida Kahlo.
It certainly took that unique combination of grit and grace for a band with the beauty, humor and boldness of Bonegasm, to exist. But those same elements prove to be essential ingredients for the band’s most spirited and vivifying album to date, a concoction both bracingly gritty and rapturously graceful.
Jennifer Wharton is a low brass specialist based in New York City. Though getting her start classically, Jen has planted deep roots in jazz and commercial music. She can usually be found honking out low notes in a Broadway pit, a recording studio, on stage or in a big band section. Jen is a member of multiple Grammy-nominated jazz orchestras, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Alan Ferber Big Band, Remy LeBoeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, Generation Gap Jazz Orchestra and the Terraza Big Band. She has also performed or recorded with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band, Woody Herman Orchestra, Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, Jihye Lee Jazz Orchestra, Big Heart Machine, and with her favorite husband, trombonist/composer John Fedchock. She has released three albums with her trombone-forward band Bonegasm: a self-titled debut released in 2019, followed by Not a Novelty in 2021 and Grit & Grace in 2023.
Jennifer Wharton’s Bonegasm – Grit & Grace Sunnyside – SSC 1709 – Recorded May 15, 2023 Release date October 20, 2023