The life of a jazz musician tends to be an itinerant one. While traveling the world over the past three decades, trumpeter/composer Jim Rotondi has formed a tenuous definition of the word “home” – sometimes it can mean a permanent residence, sometimes just a welcoming room for a few nights’ performances once or twice a year. On his latest album, Dark Blue, (due out March 4 via Smoke Sessions Records), Rotondi offers a musical travelogue of some of the places he’s been privileged to call home.
“I find new homes all the time,” Rotondi says. “New places that I end up revisiting a lot, where I get very close to the people there. It’s a very rewarding thing that musicians get to enjoy that people in other walks of life usually don’t, unfortunately.”
While the title track doesn’t refer to any place in particular, it’s a vivid description of one of the ever-changing locations where Rotondi feels most at home: his band. “Dark Blue” evokes the mood of this particular quintet, a first-time conglomeration that brings together collaborators both old and new. The all-star line-up of hard-bop stalwarts includes old friends David Hazeltine(piano) and Joe Locke (vibes) as well as new additions to Rotondi’s discography in David Wong(bass) and Carl Allen (drums).
Rotondi refers to Hazeltine as “my brother,” a close collaborator throughout many of the trumpeter’s bands, including the collective sextet One For All. The versatile Locke has also been a frequent sideman, who Rotondi praises as being able to “do so many different things that when you ask him to be a part of a project, you get three people for the price of one.”
Allen’s involvement realizes a long-time dream for Rotondi, who first heard the veteran drummer playing with two of his heroes, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Wong, while younger than his bandmates, has been recognized as a torchbearer for the tradition by his involvement with Jimmy Heath and the Heath Brothers, Benny Green, and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
The grand tour begins with the bright, darting melody of “In Graz,” written in honor of the city where Rotondi has lived for the past five years, since being named a Professor of Jazz Trumpet at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz, Austria. Upon his arrival, the faculty asked him to perform a concert of his own music, inspiring this piece. “I wanted it to have a lot of energy to commemorate my change in locale and life direction,” Rotondi explains. “Needless to say I was sad about leaving my musical brothers and sisters and the vibe of New York City, but my arrival here in Graz was a very positive change in my life.”
Rotondi’s newfound European roots have grown deeper recently, since he and his wife purchased a home in the small French town which gives its name to the tune “Le Crest.” The song is a stealthy blues that only gradually reveals itself, prompted by their yearlong search for the perfect house. “We got to this place and looked out on the valley from the balcony and knew that was it right,” Rotondi recalls.
How much time Rotondi will be able to spend in either of these homes is always up in the air given his busy touring schedule. Two of his homes away from home are memorialized in “B.C.” and “Biru Kurasai.” The former refers to the Canadian province of British Columbia, for which Rotondi holds especially warm memories. His first visit to the city of Vancouver was scheduled for the days just after the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Despite the uncertainty of the time and the sudden changes in air travel, Rotondi decided to take the trip anyway. “It turned out to be such a great experience on so many levels: the people were so happy that I went and gave me such a great welcome that I ended up going back once or twice a year for many years.”
“Biru Kurasai” pays homage to another friendly audience: Japanese jazz fans. As memorable as it is, the tune had a hurried birth: Rotondi and saxophonist Eric Alexander huddled in a recording studio break room, trying to come up with one more composition for a session led by drummer Joe Farnsworth. The result became a bandstand favorite, and translates as “I would like a beer please” – perhaps an apt sentiment for its against-the-clock inception.
“Going to the Sun” looks farther back, to Rotondi’s childhood in Montana, where he was raised by a piano teacher mother who insisted that each of her five children learn an instrument. When not practicing, the family spent their summers on a lake near Glacial National Park. Going-to-the-Sun Road winds through the park’s scenic interior for more than 50 miles, crossing the Continental Divide.
After studying at the University of North Texas, Rotondi made his way to New York City in 1987, embarking on a fruitful 23-year career on the city’s hectic jazz scene. That home receives a nod via Hazeltine’s “Highline,” named for the vibrant park built on the remains of an abandoned elevated rail line. Hazeltine also provided the arrangement for “Our Day Will Come,” a version of the ’60s pop hit that Rotondi remembers the pianist calling during one of their earliest engagements together.
The album is filled out by two other covers: Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” from “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” and “Monk’s Mood.” The latter can be seen as a stop on the album’s tour only in the sense that Monk is a creative island unto himself, and Rotondi offers a gorgeous read of one of the legendary pianist’s most beloved compositions; while the former offers an abstract stop in the realm of the imaginary, a place that all of the music on Rotondi’s scintillating and engaging new album Dark Blue can safely call home.