Shannon Gunn’s latest release, “Gunn’s Ablazin,’” is a thoughtful commentary on topics both public and private. With a range of song themes from children in cages at the US border, to her dad’s passion for cycling, “Gunn’s Ablazin’” is nothing if not expressive. The former lead trombone player at Michigan State University, has a lengthy resume that has led her to the current project.
Gunn has played with a host of jazz notables, including Marian McPartland, Billy Taylor, and Rodney Whitaker. In addition to performing, Gunn produced a podcast, “The JazzCast” (2013-2015), runs a non-profit, Jazz4Justice, which forges a collaboration between legal, business and music communities to provide both pro bono legal help for low-income individuals, and music scholarships.
The trombonist has backed up her passion for music with a solid education. She earned a masters in Jazz Studies from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Gunn has also studied at Michigan State University and James Madison University.
The sound and style of “Gunn’s Ablazin’” by Shannon Gunn
What might surprise listeners more than anything on “Gunn’s Ablazin’” is the supple feel that Gunn applies to the trombone. The trombone, one of the larger brass instruments, is known for its blaring siren of sound. Here, where there is depth of sound, the expected overwhelming of the soundscape does not happen. Instead, warm, flexible notes are used to play up each song’s theme, leaving audiences surprised in a good way.
On “Gunn’s Ablazin’,” Gunn is joined at various turns by her quintet, which includes vibraphone, bass, guitar and drums, and the Firebird Trio. The trio consists of Gunn on trombone, in addition to players on keyboards and drums.
The album contains 12 songs. Of those, “Missing Perspective” and “Rainbow Connection” stand out.
“Missing Perspective” by Shannon Gunn
A spry tattoo of drums is underscored by the wistful notes of the vibraphone. The guitar plays an aching riff that makes listeners anxious for what is to come. Slowly, the drums change pace and at first, it sounds as though the song is deconstructing. Then, the trombone begins to work its way into the soundscape. Its tone is warm and the notes sound as though they are arching upward, toward Gunn’s big idea. In short, the trombone here sounds more like a trumpet.
The song was inspired by Kara Walker’s “Pictorial History of the Civil War,” and aims to capture the idea of history books not being the complete authority on historical events. Whether audiences know this or not, the song is artful and full of dynamics that allow listeners to easily pay attention. Just when audiences have gotten into the groove, the song is over and some people will wonder if they heard a trombone at all in the song.
“Rainbow Connection” by Shannon Gunn
The classic song, made famous by a certain Muppet frog, gets a mature treatment here. It is still wistful, but there are some serious jazz moments here: the almost buzzy blend of trombone and keyboard is as relaxing as it is interesting. The drums play a shimmering series of patterns that support the rest of the soundscape nicely. Here, again, the trombone sounds like one of its lighter family members, and instead of keeping with the lyrical line and having the piece sound too staccato throughout, Gunn and her ensemble members do an expressive job of putting their own impressionistic spin on the piece. The groovy keyboard gets a nice showcase toward the end. When the trombone returns, it does hit the notes required to replicate the lyrics in the original, but it is soon overwhelmed by enthusiastic drums. The soft fade away is a nice touch. According to Gunn, the song was written in response to the death of Aretha Franklin.