Montana Wildcats is more than the title of a new album from three of Montana’s internationally known musicians; it’s a summation, at the top of their game, of the musical gifts of pianist Phil Aaberg, bassist Kelly Roberti and trumpeter Jack Walrath. Curiously, all three came from small Montana towns.
Walrath was raised in Edgar (a tiny town in Carbon County), and attended Berklee School of Music in Boston. He became an arranger and composer with Charles Mingus and played with all the masters of contemporary jazz.
Roberti was born in Malta and raised in Bozeman, and has played on and produced many concerts with a who’s who of jazz greats.
Aaberg was raised in Chester and by the age of 14 was performing with local bands. He left to study music at Harvard University, ended up composing, touring and recording with Elvin Bishop’s blues band, and has since recorded countless albums as a leader and sideman.
The idea for the album began five years ago when Aaberg was at the Emerson Theater in Bozeman to play at a benefit concert for Roberti, who had been injured in a horrific motorcycle accident.
“I was playing through some musical ideas on stage and there was this guy I didn’t recognize, sitting alone out in the theater.” The lone listener introduced himself as Jack Walrath and suggested they do a record together sometime. “I said, ‘I don’t play jazz, but maybe we can do something.’”
And so it began, this idea that is fully realized in Montana Wildcats, released in June by Aaberg’s Sweetgrass Music. The album was recorded over a series of cold winter days the previous year in Chester, with the thermometer hanging at around minus 20 degrees. All three had agreed ahead of time to bring some original songs and charts to the sessions.
The first song, “Country Slickers” by Walrath, foreshadows the music to come, reaping ideas from a wide swath of American music, from barrelhouse piano to country, rock-a-billy to blues, and jazz to classical. It begins with Walrath’s trumpet and Aaberg’s piano in a plaintive duet, but soon turns into a rollicking, swinging trio tune, ending with a bass cadenza by Roberti that shows why he is so revered by Montana musicians.
“The Final Drum,” written by Roberti, exudes rhythm from this drummer-less trio. His bass propels with percussive force and the sounds of trumpet and piano evoke visions of a tough trip through paradise.
Aaberg’s composition, “Blue Coulee,” begins and ends with Roberti’s solo bass. Both Walrath and Aaberg join in with striking harmonies reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Walrath’s trumpet is as clear-toned as any modern jazz or classical player today and consistently builds the tension in this contemplative song, while Aaberg’s piano offers a sensitive reading of the leitmotif melody.
These three wildcats have infused the nine songs on this wonderful album with the essence of Montana, from its small towns and rough-hewn cowboys, to its troubling history of oppressing Native Americans, to its glorious landscape of mountains and plains.
Visit sweetgrassmusic.com for details.
– Wilbur Rehmann