Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Trombonist/Composer/Arranger Nick Lombardelli
Whether arranging, composing, or sliding the trombone, Nick Lombardelli cuts quite the handsome figure. That figure could be the roaring vibe of a big, brass-tipped band with a fluid trombone sound as its strong lead. Or that of an orchestra’s sweeping movement. Or a hard bop ensemble with a tense, staccato ‘bone fronting it.
Lombardelli gets it, and cuts it, be it commissions for the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia or the Philly Pops Big Band, crafting charts for First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, or digging in for the University of the Arts.
To start, the young Philadelphian got his initial cues from his family. “My mom taught piano from the house full time, and I started learning from watching her teach as a really little kid, like three years old,” says Lombardelli. His mother led a musical family, including an older sister sax player, and a brother who played trumpet.
While his siblings eventually quit their instruments, Nick kept going on the ‘bone, studying and playing in jazz bands in middle and high school, finding like-minded friends in fans of Pat Metheny and John Coltrane. "When I decided to pursue music professionally, in my senior year, I started to dive into the real stuff: Clifford Brown was the gateway for me. That got the ball rolling.”
Local master percussionist Pablo Batista kept that ball in the air with his “wealth of knowledge regarding Philly music history,” and a collaboration with Lombardelli that has lasted for six years. Norman David and the Eleventet was crucial to the UArts student, as was playing with Keith DeStefano’s Puzzlebox, drummer-pianist Mike Boone, and trumpeter John Swana.
" 'Bone players like Randy Kapralick, Aaron Goode, Chris Mele and Hailey Brinnel too—Philly is the place to be for creators,” adds Lombardelli. “I’m surrounded by creators, and we all want to support each other. I’ve been so fortunate to build relationships with so many amazing people here.”
Advocating for Philly’s jazz community by seeing shows and giving money where and when he can is essential to the trombonist and his vision of the scene. To that end, he has proudly been part of “Mysterious Travelers” from Philadelphia Jazz Project (PJP), in collaboration with the Free Library of Philadelphia, a monthly series commissioning local musicians to create work based on resources at the Library.
“When PJP’s Homer Jackson told me I’d be using the resources of the Maps department, I was elated,” says Lombardelli. “I’ve geeked-out over maps since childhood, and now, when I’m bored, I get sidetracked looking at stuff on Google Maps. Checking maps of Philly in different time periods, I noticed how area railroads were established before spaces in between filled with roads and houses. My research focused on how the railroad industry shaped development of the city geographically.”
That’s local love.
Yet, Lombardelli is thinking outside the box, and beyond the width of his immediate circle when he muses, “We’d all be doing better, though, if we had more involvement outside our circle… to further contribute to the art form.”
That width has meant playing pop alongside Jamie Cullum, Ben Folds, and their events with The Philly POPS. “My pop roots keep me grounded in my writing. To me, it’s all about taste, and a lot of pop is tasteful. If you’ve heard my writing, I don’t like to take it too far out. I really, really like to see how far I can stretch that line, though. I usually know it’s too far if my Mom thinks it’s weird.”
I am surrounded by creators, and we all want to support each other. I have been so fortunate to build relationships with so many amazing people here. -Nick Lombardelli
That width has also meant that Lombardelli has been able to fashion solo passion project-compositions such as “Secret Suite,” the embodiment and furthering of many of his influences; from the early inspirations of Metheny and Brown, to Seamus Blake, Freddie Hubbard, Gil Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Hiromi Uehara, Shostakovich, and Mahler.
“I love leaving clues for people,” he says, referring to the cleverly suspenseful gamesmanship in “Secret Suite." “I love foreshadowing. I love bebop as a language. I love Shostakovich string quartets. I love Birth of the Cool.”
That width and breadth finds Lombardelli spreading his wings, writing charts for Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia (JOP) and the First Presbyterian Church, as well as teaching brass and jazz at Cardinal O’Hara High.
“When I think about writing for JOP,” says Lombardelli, “I think about writing for their Planets concert, a reimagining of Holst’s The Planets for big band, a similar vibe to the Ellington Nutcracker. It was a unique experience reformatting a straight classical piece for big band.”
“Writing my piece for First Pres was a totally different experience. This is my fifth year in the chancel choir there, the only regular singing opportunity that I get, and I have to put in work to hang. There I had to write a setting on Thomas Tallis’ Spem In Alium, a Renaissance piece written for 40 unique voice parts—eight choirs of five voices, with no doubling, singing together—a serious masterpiece. I had the words and subject matter, but a blank canvas musically. In the past, I had written vocal parts and sang in choirs, but I had never actually written a choral piece. This was a little more of a process, but the process was really rewarding.
And teaching? “Any experience leading an ensemble is so valuable—knowing how to rehearse. I think it’s helped me a lot as a bandleader prepping music for my own projects,” Lombardelli explains. “I can’t stand when someone doesn’t know how to rehearse or lead a band. I think I was way hard on my bands in the past, though.”
Rather than getting bigger while growing, Lombardelli sees his next moves as more intimate and tight.
“I’m kind of heading in the opposite direction with my next project and thinking smaller, chordless. I’ve written a bunch of stuff for piano trio, as well as a bunch of big band stuff, and six-horn stuff. I’ve also written some singer-songwriter stuff. In an ideal world, I’ll get to play and record all of it.”
It’s like his personal motto says, “Do what you dig.” And Nick Lombardelli is digging all that’s jazz and beyond.