It wasn’t until trombonist/alto flugelhornist Scott Reeves moved to New York City in 1999 that he began to compose and arrange at the level he’d always envisioned. “I’m either a late bloomer or a slow learner,” he joked after the release concert for Without a Trace (Origin Records), his second big band album, at Small’s in New York City on May 12. Or maybe he’s the best kind of band leader—one who’s learned how to do it all. 

To be sure, the skills that make one an exceptional player are often at odds with those of an arranger or composer. Playing requires a willingness to abandon organized thought and to respond in the moment; conversely, arranging and composing require analysis and introspection. “Sometimes I almost have to tell my analytical brain to shut up and let me play. But as a composer [the analytical brain] is a very useful tool,” Reeves explains.

In Reeves’ case, each of his skills informs the others. The decades Reeves spent playing and arranging for big bands under the direction of horn-player leaders like Dave Liebman and Bill Mobley taught him how to work within a classic big band sound. But for his own group, the 17-piece Scott Reeves Jazz Orchestra, he wanted to explore the dissonances and unexpected forms of contemporary jazz, emulating large ensembles like those of pianists Jim McNeely and Gil Evans, and fellow trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. The challenge was to find the right balance between tradition and experimentation that would define his own personal big band sound.

“To take this instrumentation and find something different to do with it, it’s a daunting task,” says Steve Wilson, the Orchestra’s featured saxophonist and Reeves’ associate for more than three decades. It’s a task that Reeves achieves handily, Wilson says. Reeves arrives at his sound—modern metric ideas, sweetly stacked harmonies that move in surprising directions, atypical musical alliances across the different horn sections—by utilizing the full scope of his playing experience. If he can’t play it, he doesn’t write it.  

The new album, a more eclectic, stylistically divergent mix of tunes than his all-originals release Portraits and Places (Origin Records) in 2016, speaks to the success of this approach. For instance, on the opening track, the Kurt Weill standard “Speak Low,” Reeves gives a harmonic nod to Bill Evans and his fleet swing version of the tune, even as the Afro-Cuban feel commands the listener’s focus. Similarly, on “JuJu,” Reeves references two different versions of Wayne Shorter’s ground-breaking tune, one from the 1964 original and another from Shorter’s recent lead sheets (courtesy of Shorter’s regular bassist John Patitucci); by placing the melody in the trombone line, rather than the sax line, Reeves reveals deep, unfamiliar colors in the well-known composition. With a lesser arranger, or a lesser band, such departures might not have produced the clean, crisp sound that Reeves is known for.

The title track, the original “Without A Trace,” features vocals, another departure for Reeves as a composer. The tune, a mélange of film noir moodiness and tricky intervals, shows off not only Reeves’ way with a sung melody but his mastery of the lyricist’s pen. On the disc, veteran jazz singer Carolyn Leonhart turns out the tune with impressive precision; no less impressive was the performance of newcomer Jamile Staevie at the Smalls gig. Brazil native Staevie, who recently studied with Reeves at City College, sings with surety and sensitivity, sacrificing none of the musical acumen that Reeves’ charts demand.

The album closes with the original “Something for Thad,” an early piece that Reeves crafted when he was studying trumpeter Thad Jones’ compositional style. Unlike most of his other early work, Reeves still performs this one, a bubbling, jouncing tune. In the bright tempo, the open brass solo sections, and the unflinching movement of the horn parts you can hear all the promise of Reeves’ later work.   

This fall Reeves will enter semi-retirement after almost 40 years of university teaching. He plans to use his extra time to practice, rebuild his energy, and write new music. Regarding his composing, “I’m still working at it,” Reeves says, speculating that his best years might yet lie ahead.

(Reprinted from August 2018 issue of Downbeat magazine.)