Interview with Nate Wooley, Part II: Early Years in New York City

(Photo by Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net)
(Photo by Peter Gannushkin / downtownmusic.net)

This interview is the second in a three-part series with one of New York’s most exciting trumpet players, Nate Wooley. In this portion, he talks about how he got established in New York, his involvement in lowercase (EAI) music, and how he developed a number of bands that came to have a big impact on the New York scene. See part one of the interview here.

Cisco Bradley: After graduating from University of Denver, did you come straight to New York?

Nate Wooley: After school in Denver, I worked at a record store and a book store for a couple of years. My wife and I were trying to figure out what to do, and even though I think we had both found a kind of stasis in Denver, it was also comfortable. I went to Banff Center for the Arts one summer and met Tony Malaby and Angie Sanchez (as well as Dave Ballou), and a couple of months later, Tony called and told us about an apartment for rent in Jersey City, and that was kind of the push we needed to make the leap to New York. Not a sexy story, but getting out of Denver had a huge impact on both of us.

CB: After moving to Jersey City, how did you integrate yourself into the scene here? When did you move?  It would be great if you could lead me through your career here–with whom did you first collaborate? Did you continue to have teachers or were you entirely self-directed by this point?

NW: I moved to Jersey City in April of 2001. I already knew some people here, like Malaby and Angie, Dave Ballou, and a lot of the guys that were exiting NYU at the time (Dave Treut, Tony Barba, Rob Jost, Brook Martinez). I think I was lucky in that I could kind of hit the ground running to a certain extent since I had a small amount of connections. The real entrance into the “scene” started completely at random. I was bussing tables at a vegan restaurant in my very first months in the city, and met Assif Tsahar there. I mustered up my courage and told him how much I like his playing on this handful of William Parker discs he was on from the early/mid 90s. He asked me what I played and I think I even had a business card my mother-in-law had made for me, that I gave to him. About a week later, he called me to play in his large group, where he was doing Butch Morris style conduction stuff. I started playing in that group and that really was the beginning of a lot of the connections that were important (Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Okkyung Lee, Tatsuya Nakatani, Steve Swell, Andrew Barker). It was the kind of group that was big enough to meet a ton of people but also had spots for everyone to be themselves and the kind of music I was playing at the time, which was very sound based stood out I think, and so the people that were interested in that kind of grouped together.

Around that same time I was still playing a fair amount with saxophonist Jack Wright, who I had met in Denver. He would come out and tour quite a lot, and we’d play duo or with larger groups. It was through these gigs that I met Mike Pride, who then introduced me to Trevor Dunn, Andrew D’Angelo and that whole side of the Brooklyn jazz world and Chris Forsyth, who introduced me to Fritz Welch and Sean Meehan and that side of the improv/noise world. After that, it was essentially me trying to just figure out how much playing I could do and trying to get as much out of this disparate group of musicians as I possibly could. I think this is why I never necessarily think of myself as part of the Brooklyn “scene” either. I feel like I’ve had one toe in a lot of musical worlds without ever really committing or being committed to one.

During the first years in New York and, actually still, I study with Laurie Frink. She’s always been very open to finding ways to show me how to be physically efficient in the way that I play. She really saved my trumpet playing life on numerous occasions. The rest of my study was primarily self-directed.

CB: Did you make all of the connections you mentioned in 2001?  Or did that occur over a few years?

NW: Those connections were made mostly at Banff Center for the Performing Arts the previous summer. Really most of those initial connections were made in that first year. I was kind of already moving in different directions that first year, and so those connections were the ones that were the most tied to “traditional” jazz and modern jazz. I think certain playing connections were made in the following years in that world, but they tended to be outside of those original players, just due to all of us moving in different musical directions almost immediately after I showed up.

CB: How did playing in these new contexts in your early years in NYC change how you played or thought about music?

NW: I’m not sure the move to New York did all that much to change my ideas aesthetically. I had a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to do, and was heading into certain directions when I got here, but New York did give me the swift kick in the ass to follow through, that I’m not sure I would have gotten in Denver.

CB: Other than all of the connections you made while playing in Assif Tsahar’s NY Underground Orchestra, were there other things you took away from your experience playing in that group? Were The Labyrinth and Fragments the first recordings on which you played that were released?

NW: I took a couple of things away from playing in the large group, most of them negative, unfortunately. I think Assif is great, and in a lot of ways the large group was a tremendous learning experience, but the elements that I ended up taking away from it, the things I learned, tended to be definition through nihilism. In other words, it taught me what I didn’t like and didn’t want to do. The two major things that still are issues for me are large group dynamics in improvisation and the attempt to hide personal control over improvised music. I have a very difficult time with large group improvisation. I tend to shy away from it, although I find the dynamics of it fascinating. There are certain historical large groups that I can appreciate, like Globe Unity Orchestra or King Ubu Orchestra . . . Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Ensemble X etc. but these groups have or have had a very specific aesthetic that all the members have voluntarily bought into and been a part of. In contrast, most of the large group improvising experiences I’ve had have been about conflict, dominant/submissive roles and almost anything else except music making. I have no interest in that. I also have learned to not be involved in situations in which a leader, and it’s important here to point out that Assif was doing this not in personality but by using a structure picked up by another artist, uses the concept of freedom and individual musical personality to assert control over a group of musicians. I find it lacks commitment. I would prefer someone that was openly fascist in their conception of what the music should be and we all work toward their vision than someone who wants you to express yourself freely but is then upset about the results or tries to passively guide the music. As I said, these were not elements that were necessarily always in play with Assif’s band, but it was the beginning of me coming to those realizations which is why I tend to play in smaller groups and as a sideman with very specific people.

Those two recordings were actually my 4th or 5th as a soloist. I think maybe 10th if you include a bunch of rock studio work I did in high school or college. I think both Blue Collar records were out before the Assif records, maybe even my first solo record, and my first trio record was out well before I moved to New York.

CB: I have found solo live performance listings for you dating all the way back to 2002. What musical ideas did you first aim to explore as a solo artist?

NW: I really wasn’t consciously exploring anything early on. The first real solo performance I did was on a concert that Tim Barnes put together, and he kind of just cajoled me into trying it thinking, correctly, that it would be a good experience for me. I was pretty heavily involved in that quiet musical language that some people were calling reductionism or lower-case music then (I think the term is EAI now?). Playing solo during that period made me really take responsibility for what I played and when. Over time, I started viewing it as an architecture of sorts, especially with that quiet, timbral language. As I kept playing solo, the language changed based on whatever I was interested in. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a conscious idea of what I’d like to explore in a solo piece, though. Not an improvised piece anyway. The Almond and things like that are really compositions and have a different meaning and methodology to me.

CB: What other groups did you play in during your first few years in NYC?

NW: Besides the large group, I was working in a band with Andrew D’Angelo called Bitchass which was a total ass kicker technically for me. I was also playing in bands with Mike Pride (Evil Eye), my own early quintet, a quintet with Mary Halvorson, D’Angelo, Tim Keiper, and Nat Baldwin, a very early version of Slavic Soul Party, and a ton of sideman pop stuff. I was also doing my own trio called Blue Collar with Steve Swell and Tatsuya Nakatani during that time and playing my first solo shows.

CB: You mentioned that your involvement with Bitchass was “a total ass kicker technically.” What specific techniques or ways of approaching music transformed for you during your involvement in that group?

NW: It was really just general stuff. I had never played that loud or fast for such a prolonged amount of time. Andrew is just pure energy and I had a hard time, given the state of my technique at the time, to keep up with that. It’s funny. I just got off a tour playing with Andrew again and I think that, finally, I felt really comfortable trying to find a way to match or compliment his energy.

CB: Could you tell me more about your quintet with Mary Halvorson, D’Angelo, Keiper & Nat Baldwin? Did that group ever record? What was the concept for that band?

NW: That was Mary and Tim’s band. I was just a sideman really. I think we maybe played 4 or 5 gigs in total and no recordings. I can’t really speak for Mary or Tim, but I don’t think there was much of a concept outside of just getting a group of folks together and seeing what it would sound like. I think maybe it was a similar situation for them as the early quartets were for me. Just searching, trying to figure out what you want and need to be doing.

CB: Do you have a discography and a list of gigs you’ve played in the NYC area? I poked around your website and didn’t find them, but I may have missed them.

NW: I probably have a discography somewhere, but I need to update it. As for gigs in New York….I have no idea. It’s been like 100-150 a year for 10 years?

CB: Are those other records that you mentioned still available—your first trio and solo records, in particular?

NW: With the exception of the very first trio record “Frantically, Frantically Being At Peace” everything is out of print unfortunately. I think I have 3 or 4 of that record and that’s it.

CB: Were any recordings made of the quintet w/Halvorson, D’Angelo, etc? Who led that band?

NW: No recordings of the band with Mary and Andrew…I think it was a dual led project by Mary and Tim Keiper if I remember right. That early period was mostly involved with Blue Collar and solo music and an immersion in “reductionist” or “lowercase” musics. I was playing a lot with people like Tim Barnes, Margarida Garcia, the peeesseye, Alessandro Bosetti, and Jack Wright. Very quiet and minimal, sound based improvisation. I came up pretty hard against the dogma of that fairly early and spent some time grasping at straws really. I did a 3″ cd-r release called the Boxer which was very close mic’ed trumpet, long drones. Right after that came out, I did a dual solo tour out into the midwest with percussionist Aaron Siegel and I was looking for ways to try and recreate, to a certain extent, that same quality of sound live, and so I brought a large PA speaker and the microphone setup I use now with me and that ended up being the beginning of my work with amplification, feedback, and those extended techniques. That kind of playing seems to have informed a lot of the decisions I’ve made since then.

So, beyond starting to move in that direction of “noise music” which, I should say, was already in my head to a certain extent through playing with Melee (with Ben Hall and Hans Buetow) and Graveyards (Ben, Hans, and John Olson), meeting Spencer Yeh and Chris Corsano on those tours, etc, I was also trudging through kind of a slog with my jazz playing. I had major technical problems that made playing straight trumpet painful and difficult, and so I cut back on the free jazz sort of things I was doing. I had a quartet of my own at the time with Reuben Radding, Matt Moran, and Take Toriyama. Take passed away very early and it was around the same time that I was having the physical problems, so I just kind of disbanded the group and had a couple of relatively groundless years where I wasn’t actively trying to play jazz and was still not dealing with the amplifier in a very serious way and just generally kind of just trying to get things together and figure out what seemed the most honest thing to do. I think during this time I was doing things with Crackleknob (with Reuben Radding and Mary Halvorson), a lot of stuff with Reuben actually. I was playing sideman things here and there and the work with Harris Eisenstadt and Daniel Levin was going through all of this as well. This is also when I started playing duo with Joe Morris and with Paul Lytton, both of whom have been very influential and have become close friends.

I made some strides with the amplifier and general technical part of trumpet playing, made some fixes, etc. and it was after this that I started to see possibilities of trying to deal with jazz again and so that’s when I reformed the quintet with Matt Moran as the holdover from the quartet, along with Harris Eisenstadt, Josh Sinton and initially John Hebert who needed to drop out after a couple of shows because of time constraints. He was replaced with Eivind Opsvik and now we do the double quintet thing with Dan Peck on tuba sometimes as well.

CB: How did you manage to resolve the “physical problems” that you mentioned were causing you pain?

NW: You know what? I gave up…I just stopped worrying about it. I worked on playing with as little tension in my body as possible. If I missed a note, I accepted it and tried to make something out of it. Doesn’t mean I didn’t work on NOT missing the note the next time, but I just stopped basing my self worth on how technically perfect my trumpet playing was. I haven’t really analyzed it, but I think that it just freed me up to be more aggressive about how I was playing which somehow allowed my body to find the right balance to play the horn more efficiently. That’s part of it. The real work, of course, came from years with Laurie Frink, who taught me the mechanics I needed and probably also had a big effect on me stopping worrying about playing and just playing.

CB: Could you explain a little more about what you mean by “coming up against the dogma” of reductionist/lowercase musics?

NW: I think I was involved in the lowercase thing at a time when a lot of people had already created a very strong language within its confines and were pushing the boundaries. By the time I was finding what I wanted to in that kind of music or finding out that a lot of the ways I had been hearing were being used in that music, the limits of it had been stretched to their furthest point by the people I was most interested in. There is only so far you could go with the minimalism/silence thing and there were people within and outside of that scene that, because of a need to codify and limit the language for whatever reason were pushing that music to its logical conclusion, which is, I think, what is now called loosely the Wandelweiser crowd. I love that music. I’m a huge fan of it, but it isn’t fulfilling for me to make it. I never really considered myself a part of that scene but as I began to expand my language out and added the amplifier and allowed myself to play in a more dense way which has always appealed to me, I felt myself excluded and also just drifting away from that world in general. I think “dogma” may be too harsh a term now, but at the time I think it was somewhat apt. And, I’m still a huge fan of that music and the musicians that make it. It just isn’t a very natural or honest way for me to play anymore.

CB: When did you find yourself withdrawing from the lowercase scene?

NW: hmmm, I think it must have been 2005 or 2006? I released my first solo album and did a tour with that which was the first use of amplification and that really got me thinking about different directions, which is when I started being dissatisfied with the lowercase stuff.

CB: Your work with the amplifier has been fascinating. Could you talk about its appeal to your musical aesthetic?

NW: The amp really started as a way to use the softest parts of the musical vocabulary in a group that may not always want to play soft. I just figured that it would be a way to get those frequencies heard. I did a solo tour with a large PA speaker (not really knowing anything) and started to find that I was less interested in just amplifying small sounds and more interested in the different areas I could explore, like pure rhythmic or frequency stuff; later thinks with manipulation of voice and feedback. So, it just kind of became its own thing. I really think of it as a different vocabulary at this point; not just a solo vocabulary, but like a doubling instrument.

CB: Could you talk a little bit more about your experience in Daniel Levin and Harris Eisenstadt’s groups?  Then I promise to move forward to your other projects.  When did you join each of them?

NW: I joined Daniel’s band in 2003 or 2004 I think. That quartet celebrated it’s 10th anniversary last year, but their initial trumpet player was Dave Ballou and I joined after their first record. I think I grew up a lot in that band. I learned to play things that could fade into the background and think a little less like a soloist and more like a chamber musician. It was that band that set up a lot of playing opportunities and musical compatibility with Matt Moran and Joe Morris (Joe was replaced 4 or 5 years ago with Peter Bitenc). Daniel and I have a very specific way of playing together and I always enjoy it. That band has gone through a lot of changes, from playing Eric Dolphy tunes and things that were really ostinato-based, to playing small fragmentary ideas of music, to playing based off of verbal instructions and now just playing completely free. I think Daniel has been a genius at finding a group sound and doing different things to try and keep it evolving and fresh.

I joined Canada Day right when Harris moved here, which I think must have been 2006? I think I’m the only guy that has been in every version of the band, from the earliest with Michael Attias to what it is now and has been for the past 3 or 4 years. Harris’ music has always been a great challenge for me. Not only the tunes themselves which are deceptively difficult, but finding a way to be personal and put my own stamp on the music, while remaining true to Harris’ vision of jazz, which I think is much more melodic and lyrical than my own.

This interview was conducted via email between December 2012 and May 2014.

–Cisco Bradley, July 2, 2014

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