Julian Priester returns, as experimental as ever

Whenever trombonist Julian Priester is introduced, his name is preceded by a long and illustrious list of the leaders he's played for — Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Dave Holland. It's an impressive list. But it's not what Priester, who just brought out a wonderful new album, "In Deep and Dance" (Conduit), really wants to hear.

"Over the past 48 years of my career, this is only the fifth album I've made as a leader," explains the 67-year-old veteran, in a quiet yet firm voice, as mellow and alluring as the sound of his trombone. "I'd like to close that gap."

Priester may be poised to do just that. After a long and debilitating wait, during which he took time off from his teaching post at Cornish College, he received a liver transplant. The operation two years ago gave him a new lease on life, not to mention renewed vigor. His two sons are both in college now, so his responsibilities at home have dwindled. "Julian Priester is back," he announces, "and you are going to see Julian Priester more on the road as a leader."

Priester celebrates his return to the scene at an album release party Saturday at Cornish College. It's been a long time coming. Born in Chicago, Priester attended DuSable High School, where the legendary Captain Walter Dyett rode herd on many jazz greats, including Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Nat King Cole. While laboring under Dyett's baton, Priester gigged on weekends with Muddy Waters and studied be-bop afterhours.

In 1956, the 21-year-old trombonist toured with Washington and Lionel Hampton, who two years later stranded him in New York. Jumping feet first into Manhattan hard bop, Priester recorded his first album, "Keep Swinging," for Riverside. (Priester's 1960 effort, "Spiritsville," was recently reissued on the Milestone CD "Out of This World.") His reputation soon reached Roach, who hired him for a groundbreaking group with Eric Dolphy. The band played in unusual time signatures, an approach later popularized by Dave Brubeck.

Moving back to Chicago, where early on he'd been exposed to the sounds of Sun Ra, Priester formed an experimental group with Richard Abrams, who later founded the hugely influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But Priester's "bag" had lots of pockets. Back in New York, he did a stint with Art Blakey, worked in the studios, and even played in the pit of Burt Bacharach's show, "Promises, Promises." Then Duke called.

For many players, this might have been the call to end all calls. For Priester, it came too late, although he did play with Ellington for half a year.

"Duke was a source of inspiration," he gently explained at an Earshot Jazz panel on Ellington a few years back. But by then, big-band music felt too confining. It was 1970, after all. Playing funk/fusion and experimental, colorist ideas with Hancock seemed far more interesting.

Hancock led Priester to the Bay Area, where he taught at Lone Mountain College, and recorded for ECM with his own group, Marine Intrusion.

In 1979, he got a call from Cornish, and he's been there ever since.

Cornish has proven a wellspring of creativity. He made an album there in the '80s with Quartett, with former Cornish instructors Gary Peacock, Jerry Granelli and Jay Clayton.

His new disc draws on Cornish personnel, as well as former students Dawn Clement (piano), Brian Vannoy (drums) and Goeff Harper (bass). "In Deep and Dance" also is the debut of a new Seattle label, started by Cornish student Beck Henderer-Peña.

It's a dazzling piece of work that segues through eight very different musical situations. "Blues Sea" combines his early love of the blues with his natural bent toward complexity. "In Deep" and "Ecumene" reflect Priester's continuing fascination with odd time signatures and the transitory nature of musical form.

"There are many real-life examples of that," he says, "You take the history of this country and the turmoil that occurs — the Civil War, World War I, the Depression, World War II — and right now. There are periods of stability, and times when form evaporates."

As a trombonist, Priester has been most influenced by the pure tone and speedy articulation of the great be-bop trombonist J.J. Johnson. The Chicagoan often plays in the high register, where he can be heard better, over the rhythm section. "After 60 minutes of the trombone, it's easy for the listener to become distracted," he says. "It's not like a tenor saxophone, where you can get up in the high register and screech. That's why each piece on the CD had to be different."

Clement projects a feeling of flowing mystery and intense emotion on her tune, "A Delicate Balance." Harper's "Thin Seam of Dark Blue Light" has a slightly cartoonish swing feel. Vannoy is crisp and thoughtful throughout. But it's the teetering balance between individual personality and group cohesiveness that really holds the album together, a theme Priester hints at with the title, "In Deep and Dance," a pun on the word "independence." The idea of interdependency also applies to Priester's attitude toward tradition and innovation.

"As I progress artistically," he says, "I don't discard the old ideas. I don't believe one should replace the other. They're all valid."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com.

Julian Priester album release party for "In Deep and Dance"

8 p.m. Saturday at the PONCHO Concert Hall at Cornish College, 710 E. Roy St., Seattle $6-$12 (206-325-6500 or www.ticketwindowonline.com)