Nate Wooley to Unveil New Double Trio at Roulette this Thursday
A full set of original music will be showcased at Roulette this Thursday by one of our moment’s boldest musical voices, Nate Wooley. As an artist, Wooley seems to be climbing ever higher in his ambitions with each new project, so the debut of his new double trio, Argonautica, promises to be one of the most exciting musical events this summer. Wooley has received attention in recent years with the quintet that bears his name, his project Seven Storey Mountain, numerous other bands, many of which have toured internationally, and as the winner of Musician of the Year by both the New York Jazz Record and the 2013 El Intruso International Critics Poll.
Argonautica is a new project that combines elements of aleatoric and minimalist compositional aesthetics and forces them into the prism of early fusion (when jazz/rock was dirty). Designed as an homage to Wooley’s early trumpet hero, Ron Miles, Argonautica seeks to find a new way to tell a story begun on the latter’s “My Cruel Heart” from the early 90s. The group is a double trio with Wooley and Miles on trumpets, new music firebrand Cory Smythe on piano, Belgian avant-electro keyboard whiz “Joe Malone”, and Rudy Royston and Devin Gray on drums. The compositions, written especially for this concert, set up swirling asymmetrical hockets and soundspaces that give flexibility to the musical personalities of each member of the band. It is an organism, moving in part or in toto, sometimes in two directions at once, but always with purpose.
New Double Trio with:
Nate Wooley (trumpet)
Ron Miles (cornet)
Jozef Dumoulin (Fender Rhodes)
Cory Smythe (piano)
Rudy Royston (drums)
Devin Gray (drums)
June 26, 2014: 8 pm at Roulette
Interview Part I: The Origins of Nate Wooley
This is the first of an extensive three-part interview with Nate Wooley conducted intermittently through the period December 2012 to May 2014. In the interview below, Wooley discusses cogently his origins as a musician and the difference between “hero worship” and paying tribute to the great musicians that preceded him.
Cisco Bradley: Could you give me a sense of your origins–where you grew up, how you became interested in music and the trumpet in particular, and who your teachers were.
Nate Wooley: I grew up in Clatskanie, Oregon, which is a town of about 1500 people on the Columbia River. My father is a saxophonist, and at the time worked with a territory big band on the Oregon and Washington coasts. I started playing with them when I was 12 or 13 years old and got a lot of my improvising education by sitting in that band with ex-members of the Stan Kenton and Woody Herman big bands. It was a completely utilitarian education that was involved with making sure I stayed within a certain set of stylistic parameters and rode a line between swinging and being an individual and not stepping out so far from the ensemble that I upset the flow of the evening.
I started by playing piano, but in third grade when it was time to join band, I chose trumpet because a bandleader that my father had worked with, Chip Hinckley, had recently died in a car crash and he had always been so nice to me, and I had grown up around that band so much, that his sound was in my head and it just seemed right to take up the same instrument he played. I think a lot of my sound now when I’m playing cleanly is from my memory of the way he played. I’m really not a very natural trumpet player, but it just felt right and I have always heard things as a trumpet player, so I think it just seemed to happen in a natural kind of way.
I had a couple of formal teachers that were important to me growing up. I studied piano from an early age with Natalie Lowrance, who found music that would keep me engaged and involved, which led me directly to learning to play chord changes and to performing Schoenberg and Webern in High School. In middle school and high school I studied with John Swecker and Carol Smith, both of whom (and this was true of a lot of teachers, luckily for me, through college as well) were more involved in making sure I was playing efficiently no matter where my musical interests were taking me.
I did my undergrad at University of Oregon and my graduate work at University of Denver. Along with very open teachers (I was really starting to try and push myself in a way that I was probably not equipped to), I had a lot of peers that were into experimentation and listening to anything that was new and fresh and broke down what we were describing as music at the time. That was key.
CB: Were there teachers in undergrad or grad school who you would like to mention?
NW: At University of Oregon, I had two important teachers that gave me two opposing views on how to think about playing and growing in my ability and ideas over the long term, which has been a cornerstone for me in how I structure my own practice now and how I teach, when I do teach. The first was Steve Owen, who taught me the basic concept of taking an idea, physically mastering it outside of attempts to put it in a musical context, experimenting with it in as many musical contexts as possible (in other words, playing with the idea), and then just playing and seeing if it comes out in any natural or new ways. I still basically follow this form when I practice now, albeit with more abstract ideas. The other professor was Gary Versace, who was only there for a couple of years before moving to New York. He taught me how to immerse myself in the music I was interested in, deconstruct it, absorb it, and be able to reproduce it with the ultimate goal of making it my own. This is something I don’t deal with in the same form now, as I’m not interested in that kind of language building like I was then (this kind of work is essential), but I carry that spirit on in my daily listening and practicing and it was really important.
CB: Was it an adjustment moving out of your musical world of Oregon and relocating to Denver? How did the move to Denver change how you viewed music? Why did you choose to go to the University of Denver? Did you connect with the Denver scene during your time there?
NW: As for Denver, Lynn Baker, the head of the jazz department there, made me look back at jazz tradition and the building blocks of the jazz language and shore up a lot of things that I had glossed over in the name of “freedom.” He had a very open mind and ultimately let me experiment and do what I wanted to do, but there was always an emphasis on making sure that was coming from a strong musical foundation. It wasn’t necessarily sexy, but it was incredibly important to the way I play now. Steve Dunn, who was the trumpet professor there just for the two years I was doing my graduate work before he headed ultimately to Northern Arizona, was incredibly nurturing. I entered my Master’s with a lot more creativity than physical skill and he gave me a good hard kick in the ass to let me know how far behind I was, and then spent the next two years coming in at the crack of dawn and warming up with me, essentially giving me a daily lesson and setting a lot of ground work for the efficiency with which I play now. I can’t say enough good things about him…really, I probably would have blown my chops out 10 years ago if it hadn’t been for him.
Also, outside the school, I “studied” with Ron Miles. I put it in quotes because I think that, outside of those students he formally teaches at Metro State, spending any amount of time with Ron is a lesson if you’re paying attention. It’s not a discernible lesson, but you will learn something, or at the very least be inspired to redouble your efforts toward being a better musician and human being. I don’t claim to be his student as some others do, but I am proud to have spent time with him listening to records, talking about whatever, and getting to play duets now and again. He’s one of the few trumpet players, after years of distancing myself from hero worship as much as possible, that I’m still proud to call a true musical and personal hero. I also took lessons from Art Lande and Rob Blakeslee at this time, not a ton, but I got a lot out of each one in different ways; things I am still dealing with.
Denver as a scene had some upsides, but really it was not a friendly place for me after a certain point. I do still have friends there that I loved and still love playing with, like Andrew Lindstrom and Al Scholl, but I haven’t been back in a long time.
CB: You mentioned “hero worship.” How have you managed to both absorb the “tradition” while maintaining your own voice?
NW: When I started practicing and trying to learn jazz I went at it through the lens of hero worship. Since I grew up in a relatively isolated place, the only information I was getting about non-big band jazz was from trips to a record store called Birdland in Portland. I would buy as many LPs as $50 would get me, which was a lot in the mid to late 80s and just go home and wear them out. I tend towards obsession with a lot of things, then more than now, and so I would have periods where I would only buy and listen to Miles Davis or Freddie Hubbard or Woody Shaw or Booker Little or Clark Terry. I understood the way in which I was supposed to take those players apart as mandated by American Jazz Education; pulling off licks, learning them in all twelve keys, different tempi, etc. but for one, I was 12 or 13 years old and physically not capable of playing even the simplest lines from the recordings. Beyond that, I think I have always been prone to deconstruction, so I listened to things in a way that steered toward understanding why it sounded the way it did. I tended to listen to Miles and all of them in a way that focused more on articulation, timbre, density, how they moved energy, etc., then looking at what I think of as the lowest common denominator of counterpoint. I mean, to some players that’s what defines them, but I was never very interested in that, and so I tended to gravitate more towards players that lent themselves to that kind of listening and practicing.
So, that was the pragmatic end of things and a lot of where my thinking comes from regarding practicing and the role of tradition in being a jazz musician. I don’t consciously try and include traditional elements in my playing, nor do I try and move contrary to tradition. I do think that, in regard to my own happiness and aesthetic thinking, recreating tradition is a waste of time. Jazz is one of the few musical forms which has been documented pretty completely from its beginnings and to recreate records or performances, even in the name of tribute to a great musician or composer, is a misuse of an improvising musician’s talents. That doesn’t mean that you can’t play on an Ornette Coleman song and do something personal and valid, but to create specific projects under the aegis of reproducing great thoughts of another human being seems offensive both to the person you’re paying tribute to and to yourself. I think the best tribute you can pay to another musician is to follow the sound in your head and work tirelessly to be as serious about that sound as they were about theirs.