The Tip of the Sword
If recordings, like spirits and wine, actually improved over time, this unconventional trio session could be offered as compelling proof. Featuring trombonist Conrad Herwig, pianist Richie Beirach and drummer Jack DeJohnette, The Tip of the Sword was recorded in 1994. Although only in his mid-30s, Herwig had established himself as one of the premier improvisers of his generation on the unwieldy instrument. The session is blissfully genre-neutral and devoid of the Latin jazz and post-bop references that have come to define the trombonist’s stylistic persona in recent years. Adventure-seeking listeners will find much to contemplate and enjoy within the broad range of moods and highly personalized improvisations created by these gifted musicians.
Herwig penned all seven tracks. In the liner notes, he also provides brief quotes from the ancient Taoist writings of Zhuangzi, to establish a thematic framework for each composition. While there are few overt links to any Asian music idiom, the spiritual text provides the trio with clear points of departure and arrival. “Restful, quiet, silent” is the quote used to set up “The Void,” which, at seven-and-a-half minutes, is the album’s longest track and among its most intriguing. Beirach begins the piece by sprinkling carefully placed single notes that linger while their resonance slowly ebbs. Herwig enters with a contemplative excursion into the upper register, tonally tempered by a straight mute that creates a breathy, somewhat mournful texture. DeJohnette’s spare cymbal work complements an overall icy, melancholy strain that will suggest to some the influence of contemporary Scandinavian classical forms.
In contrast, “Inner Sincerity” provides a more conventional framework for DeJohnette’s avalanche of rim shots and rolls, Beirach’s percussive comping and the trombonist’s technically boundless solo escapade. From idyllic interludes to explosions of organic improvisational fury, The Tip of the Sword is demonstrably a cut above.
— Mark Holston