A Look Behind the Curtain: Henry Wolking’s IN SEA

Henry Wolking

One week from today marks the release of IN SEA, the full-length album of big band charts by Utah-based composer / trombonist / professor emeritus Henry Wolking, on Big Round Records. 

To say the album has been a long time coming would be an understatement — as Henry notes, “this is truly the album I’ve waited 40 years to record.” In anticipation of its release, we caught up with Henry to talk about the album, what led up to it, and what’s coming up next.


While you spent most of your career in Salt Lake City, I understand you’re originally from Florida. What led you out west? 
While doing graduate work at University of North Texas (then North Texas State University) where I was studying classical composition but playing trombone in and writing for the 1:00 O’clock Lab Band (directed by Leon Breeden) and conducting the 3:00 O’ Clock Lab Band, I saw a post on the bulletin board about a position for a jazz composer/performer at the University of Utah. I applied for the gig and here I am after 40 years retired as Professor Emeritus. I will say Utah offers some of the finest skiing, hiking, and wilderness activities as any place in the world-never a dull moment.

You were Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Utah for nearly 40 years. Do any concerts or performances you directed stick out in particular? 

IN SEA

In the first decade of teaching 1973-83 there was still National funding for jazz artist residencies. I was able to bring Thad Jones out twice for week long residencies. We became friends, and I personally learned more from him than any other jazz composer, except perhaps Bob Brookmeyer. The concerts we gave of his music with him playing and conducting remain one of the highlights of my teaching career.

How long have you been working with Jerry Floor and the Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra? How did you start working with them? 

I started playing with the band from its very beginning  around 1973. It was then known as the Floor/Crismon band, and was co-lead by Bill Crismon, a very fine jazz trumpet player who doubled on bass. I have performed on and off with the band up to the present. When Jerry Floor organized the first Salt Lake International Jazz Festival nearly a decade ago, the band was renamed to reflect its status as Utah’s flagship professional jazz orchestra. The Salt Lake City Jazz Orchestra  is not only the house big band for that festival, but for the annual Utah Arts Festival as well.

There’s no shortage of fantastic players on this record, especially the guest soloists Kris Johnson, Greg Floor, Kevin Stout, and David Halliday. Knowing you’ve got a wealth of talented friends, colleagues, and former students, how did you decide on who to feature on your album? 

It was a tough call since I am fortunate to have taught and interacted with so many gifted and talented students over the years. I was incredibly fortunate to have met Kris Johnson, who holds my former position at the U of U, when he came out to interview for that job last Spring. His playing completely blew everyone away. We knew he is the Basie band’s jazz trumpet soloist and that he has a couple albums with his own groups, but hearing him live—wow! He graciously agreed to play on my album. Greg Floor, Jerry’s son was a child prodigy. I knew him as an undergrad student, and then as a colleague teaching in our program. I can’t use enough superlatives in describing not only his playing but that of David Halliday, Kevin Stout and all the soloists in the band as well.

I remember the sessions at Metcom Studios last August running pretty smoothly, but it’s no secret that things can sometimes get complicated during a recording. What would you say was the biggest challenge going into or during the session, and how did you overcome it? 

The biggest challenge was to get 12 fairly difficult charts done in two five hour sessions. Since I had to include breaks, it left me with under an hour to get each chart in the can. Several of the solo tracks were to be overdubbed later, but the challenge for me as conductor was to stay focused, not panic, and to pace the sessions to keep the brass from wearing out their chops. In the end it all came together because the players were committed, motivated, and had done their endurance prep work.

Some of these arrangements were written within the last couple of years, but you mention that others like “Rush Hour Shuffle” date back to the early 1980s. How did you decide which charts to record for the album? 

I wanted to do the newer works written in the last five years or so, but Reed LeCheminant, my lead trumpet and jazz soloist, asked me to consider doing “Rush Hour”, so I went back to the recording we did of that piece when Reed was a student, and realized I’d forgotten just how good he sounded on it. It also allowed me to feature other soloists on that chart who were former students at about the same time. Finally, I’ve always really liked that chart, and the band made it sound as fresh as if it were written yesterday.

Four of the charts on the album (“Reverie,” “Claire de Lune,” “Jimbo’s Lullaby,” and “A Piece of Cake”) are either inspired by or arrangements of Claude Debussy’s work – how has Debussy’s music been an inspiration to yours? What did you learn from studying his work? 

Like other jazz composers who studied Debussy’s harmonic language, I learned that jazzers didn’t invent non functional minor nine, sus, or altered dominant chords. Debussy was such a radical composer for his time because he left the restrictions of conventional harmony and chord progressions, and composed music that was both personal and universal yet new and individualistic. I sort of see Gil Evans as a reincarnation of Debussy, that is, he too had an exquisite disregard of conventional chord voicings and melodic structures. With both composers, the music never seems random but fully informed and highly individualistic.

While you’ve received well-deserved attention for your work as a composer and arranger, not everyone knows that you’re also an active trombone player. How has your experience as a trombone player influenced your composing, and vice versa? 

I think the reason so many trombone players are arranger/composers is that we play an instrument that is not only located in the middle, or center of the big band, but that has a range or tessitura  located at the exact pitch of the notes we sing and think. In conventional big band set ups, the trombone section is also  is located closest to the rhythm section, so we literally have time coming into and out of our ears. When composing melodic material in my head I tend to hear it internally on either the piano or trombone, this helps give internal pitch reference. Having said that, I hear whatever I write exactly as it will sound on any instrument I write for, including strings and rhythm section instruments, and including full ensemble sounds from small to large orchestra groups. I’ve never needed computer playback devices, though they do help locate mistaken notes.

What or who are you listening to right now? 

To name just a few favorites that I’ve listened to in the last couple weeks : James Darcy Argue, John Hollenbeck, Kurt Elling, and Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Other than the release of IN SEA this month, what do you have going on in 2016? 

I’ll be going to Oakland to see my young grandson, Thelonius, and perhaps see who’s playing at Yoshi’s, as well as coordinating jazz events at the Utah Arts Festival, and conducting the Utah based Phoenix Jazz Band with singer Jack Wood in an all Sinatra tribute. I’ll also be performing at various venues with the Wasatch Jazz Project Big Band and trying to decide who or what to write for next for the remainder of the year.


IN SEA will be available March 11th. Until then, you can check out the title track on SoundCloud below. Congratulations, Henry!

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