‘Each new badass’: Trombonist Michael Dease brews a fresh take on the blues

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You could get into a thicket teasing out trombonist Michael Dease’s many inspirations. He’s a professor of jazz at MSU, after all.

But there is a pleasing ease to Dease’s expertise. He has the rare ability to communicate the simple feeling of happiness — just walking down the street, soaking up the sun and taking in the faces and places around you. 

His new album, “Give It All You Got,” is making a big mark on the jazz scene, with great notices from DownBeat and other national forums. Dease is nominated for Trombonist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists’ Association.

Dease could scald you with a salvo of slide work where you sit, but he’s more interested in persuading you to walk along with him. In “Ritmo de Brevard,” he lets a single note refract a rainbow of harmonic colors as the samba rhythm strolls along.

A bedrock of blues makes the footing solid, no matter what melodic form he chooses. Dease credits his love of the blues to birthplace, Augusta, Georgia.

“Being a Southern raised musician, jazz was in the same conversation as Delta city blues, James Brown, R&B, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson and country music — not country rock, but real country music,” Dease explained. “I wanted to celebrate my relationship with jazz through a blues tinged lens.”

There’s no lack of brain food in “Give It All You Got,” but lately, Dease has gotten less interested in the cerebral side of jazz.

“We’re getting away from tapping your feet and shaking your ass. It worries me a little bit,” he said.

He knows it’s been a tug of war for decades.

“Well, this is my tug the other way,” Dease said. “I used to be more concerned with cerebral elements, when I was first wrapping my head around them, but the propulsiveness and the beat of swing jazz just pulled me back.”

The company Dease keeps on “Give It All You Got” gives him a head start. The album marks Dease’s first lengthy encounter with Hammond B-3 master Jim Alfredson.

“This is the first time I’ve had Jim join my band, and what I respect and love so much about him is that the blues is always in his music, and everything is melodic,” Dease said.

“Dave’s Boogie Down” pinches the album’s overall air of comfort with an undertone of sexual tension, as Alfredson (who composed the tune) tugs the silk rope with a persistent, minor-key vamp, a “no” that really means “yes” to the boogie-ing going on around him.

“He’s the melody man, but he’s also the consummate rhythm section player on the organ,” Dease said. “He’s the real deal.”

Alfredson brought two tunes to the “Give It All You Got” session, drummer Luther Allison brought one and trumpeter Anthony Stanco, an MSU Jazz Studies alumnus, brought Dease’s favorite tune on the CD, “Climb the Mountain.” Stanco has made good since his MSU years, teaching at Oakland University and Ohio State and leading a five-piece jazz ensemble that tours the world for the U.S. State Department’s “American Music Abroad” program.

Stanco envisioned a brisk tempo, but his tune was so lovely that Dease suggested the group slow it down and give it a “church feeling.”

“It’s like if you add a drop of water to a peaty Scotch,” Dease said, mixing his metaphors like a combination priest and bartender. “The tempo made all the flavor of the tune come out.”

Dease wrote the rest of the tunes on the album. “Word to the Wise” has a strolling, perfect-day feeling, with Dease in supple, fluid mode of his trombone idol, Curtis Fuller.

“That’s what the older folks call ‘the grown folks’ tempo,’” Dease said.

“The more experience you get — I’m avoiding saying ‘old’ — the more I realize that time moves so quickly and you never get it back, so why not take time to just enjoy the music?”

The pandemic has been a mixed bag for Dease. He loves spending time with his wife, Gwen, and their two young kids, at the perfect moment, just when the oldest is about to start preschool.

But he needs the give and take of teaching to prime his creative juices. 

An only child, Dease spent much of his time combing through encyclopedias. He has been a teacher, in one form or another, since he was a teenager himself. 

At MSU, he found the “real citadel of jazz education” he was looking for and relishes mentoring the students in his trombone studio, even via Zoom.

But he has other outlets to draw upon. Several tunes on ““Give It All You Got” are inspired by Dease’s longstanding gig as director of a summer jazz program in North Carolina. 

In 2013, Dease’s wife, Gwen, was invited to teach orchestral percussion and chamber music at the prestigious 84-year-old Brevard summer music festival, a program of master classes and a musical celebration in the vein of Chatauqua and Tanglewood.

Dease fell in love with the program and the setting. Festival organizers asked him if he was interested in helping Brevard branch into jazz. (A first attempt to bring jazz to Brevard, 10 years before, fizzled.) In five years, Dease grew the jazz program from one trombone class with 15 students into a 75-student program on all instruments.

“What’s special about Brevard is that the faculty comes from all over the country, of all ages, with all these different ways of approaching the music,” Dease said.

That’s the way Dease likes it. He had a chance to join two of the most prestigious jazz machines on Earth, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the WDR Big Band, but that kind of regularity doesn’t appeal to him. 

“I love what happens when you play with different people,” he said. “I get a different momentum, a different conversation with each new badass.”

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