John Coltrane (aka "Train") amazed us with his bebop sax work, Miles Davis impressed us with unusual ideas about jazz trumpet, while Nate Wooley's improvisation skills enthroned him as one of the most favored trumpet players in jazz. Upgrading jazz? In some ways, yes; Wooley's solo playing has often been cited as being a part of an international revolution in improvised trumpet. A combination of vocalization, noise and drone aesthetic, and extreme extended techniques, you can sure call his recordings delightfully heavy. Since 2001, when he moved from Oregon to New York, he has performed with such icons as Eliane Radigue, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Ken Vandermark. He is considered one of the leading figures in (re)defining the way the trumpet is played and perceived. Dave Douglas (one of my favs) said, "Nate Wooley is one of the most interesting and unusual trumpet players living today, and that is without hyperbole." I admit it, my hands were shaking a little when I was preparing the questions for Mr. Wooley, since you don't get an opportunity to interview your music idol very often. So, relax, grab a cuppa, put on Wooley's latest work, (Sit In) The Throne of Friendship, and gain some new insight into Nate's life.
Hi Nate, how are you doing? What's on your schedule right now?
Hi, doing pretty well, thanks for asking. I'm kind of in schizoland trying to put together a lot of different music all at once, but mostly focusing on the new music for the Quintet and some new groups and solo pieces that are premiering early this year.
How did you decide to play the trumpet? Were there any significant influences or passions behind that decision?
My father is a saxophonist and he had reed instruments everywhere in the house. I think that was an influence, because I wanted to play something that separated myself a little bit. He played in a group led by a guy named Chip Hinkley when I was little and he was kind of a hero. I loved his sound, big and warm but with a little edge too. He was killed in a car accident when I was still young, before picking an instrument for band. I think that made an impression on me and so I gravitated toward the trumpet.
You are known for seeking the non-traditional sounds of the trumpet. It's fascinating how you can move between the worlds of bebop and non-traditional playing. How did you chose your style? Do you like to mix and spice things up with elements from different music backgrounds?
I didn't really choose a style. I basically play what I hear in my head. I did make a conscious decision at some point to just listen to what I heard and try and play that, regardless of if the sounds were beautiful and traditional or raw and ugly. I grew up with jazz and that's a part of the way I hear. I can't play an eight note on the beat to save my ass. I can't play with the light classical sound. I also can't ignore the rawer, more vocal sounds that I hear and so I don't try to. I really don't think of the sounds as any more exotic. To me the same weight is given to a line over harmony in straight trumpet sound and a broken multiphonic sound. I don't differentiate.
Can you tell us how are you emotionally involved with what you are doing, with the sound that you produce? Does this feeling change for you when you're in the middle of playing and when you're away from it - listening or just thinking about someone else's music?
The whole idea is to get out what I have trouble with in real life. I am painfully shy and spend a lot of time thinking to myself. I am human, though, and in some ways very passionate and need to get that out. When I'm playing, it is just that. If I could do it in words, I would do it that way, but I've probably spent as much time playing music as I have speaking to other people, so it seems a more natural way to express myself.
When I'm listening to or thinking about someone else's music, I tend to be much more engaged intellectually than emotionally. There are certain musicians and albums that I listen to just because they move me in a certain way, but I am very interested in deconstructing and understanding things. That's the way I tend to approach other music.
How would you describe your latest work "(Sit In) The Throne of Friendship"? Why did you decide to invite Dan Peck (the tube) to collaborate on this album? Will he become a permanent member of the band?
The pieces were based on different ideas of friendship and that kind of love. I wrote them after reading Derrida's "Politics of Friendship", which had an impact on me. Each piece was actually based on Debussy piano pieces and had a certain idea of what friendship is and how it manifests socially behind it. It's funny to say this, because I think it's probably the most straight jazz thing I've ever done, but that's where they came from.
Including Dan had more to do with keeping the band working. Eivind Opsvik, the bass player, was so busy, that I had to find a way to work with his schedule. I don't like "subbing" people in and out of my bands. I pick people for a reason beyond the instrument they play, so I didn't want to just use a string of bass players. I thought it would be interesting to just try and write a book of music for two seemingly different bands, one with Eivind and Josh on bass clarinet and one that was more brass band with Dan and Josh on bari sax.
Right now, the new book is coming from a much different angle as it is arrangements of old Wynton Marsalis tunes from his earliest records, and somehow it doesn't make sense to have Dan involved. Also, he's as busy as Eivind (if not more!), so the pragmatic angle is gone. I'm sure it's not the last time we'll work with Dan, but I want to work this music through a different way.
Practising and developing instrumental techniques are definitely really important for achieving your musical goals. I guess it takes a lot of physical condition to master the instrument the way you do. How do you practice? Is every practice more or less the same or do you keep on changing the routine?
It's a little bit of both, actually. I play every morning before work and that's basically always the same 30 or 45 minutes of exercises. Later practice is usually the same basic skills but I find ways to make sure the exercises are always changing so I'm not just gaining muscle memory for a specific set of pitches, but working on building the skills I feel I need to improvise.
What does in your opinion constitutes a good gig? Is it your emotional experience? Emotions you evoke in the audience? Maybe the people you're collaborating with?
It's hard to say. It changes every single gig. I often go into a situation with a certain goal. Sometimes it's with a band where I have trouble with intonation with the saxophonist, so I think about that. Other times it's just being happy playing parts and not soloing. That's a lot of playing "gigs". Not every concert is a highlight. Sometimes it's just "work". I love work, though and love doing it, but I try and just get better with each of those kind of concerts and if I do, then I feel okay.
With gigs where it is really open and I am not thinking this way, I don't know what makes them special. Sometimes I feel like I spent a lot of emotional energy and that feels nice but the audience hated it or was indifferent. Sometimes it's the other way around. The more I dwell on it, the crazier I make myself. So, I really just set a baseline of being as engaged as I can every time and taking a little time by myself afterward to think about the things I didn't.
The leading figure of free improvisation movement Derek Bailey defined improvising as a constant search for materials. Do you agree with that thought? Which materials are transformable and stimulating for you?
For me, it works in phases. There is a phase in which I'm looking for material and expanding, and another during which I'm refining material and contracting. It's like breathing but over a longer time scale. Or, to use a different metaphor, it's like gaining vocabulary words and trying to use them naturally, even elegantly.
Do you find it challenging when you record improvised music?
Not so much. I really have never had a hard time separating recording or performing improvised music. If it's jazz music or something written with expectations then that can be much longer.
The internet and all developments in technology have definitely changed the way music is being made and treated. Does this affects you in any way or do you maybe see it as a way to present your work to the wider audience? Do you think that the quickly changing environment will slowly change the ways people experience music, especially jazz?
Honestly, I don't know. The development of technology is so far out of my field of knowledge that I have no control over its shape or speed. I find the game of trying to predict how you can best utilize your own career ends kind of perverse in a way, but I also know that if I want to keep playing then I have to deal with it on some level.
It obviously helps someone like me reach a wider audience. The internet has opened up those possibilities and that's fantastic from the standpoint of making the world a little smaller and the artist a little more human. I don't know that it's going to drastically change the way people hear jazz or any other sort of music, though. I have a feeling that we'll find out people have a stronger attraction to physical objects than we think. The internet won't undo millions of years of ritualization overnight.
What do we have to look forward from you in the next year? I bet you have some exciting and stimulating projects up your sleeve.
Well, the first part of the year is a little nuts. I'm premiering the first part of a 90 minute solo piece with electronics next week and then three new bands that are all kind of hitting at the same time: a collective quartet with Dave Rempis, Pascal Niggenkemper, and Chris Corsano, new written music for a group called Battle Pieces (myself, Sylvie Courvoisier, Ingrid Laubrock, and Matt Moran), and a commission for a new project called Argonautica, which is a double trio with myself and Ron Miles playing trumpet/cornet, Jozef Dumoulin and Cory Smythe on keyboard/piano, and Gerald Cleaver and Rudy Royston on drums. I think there will be a new duo record of Ken Vandermark and I, and I'll be premiering new solo and duo music written by French composer Eliane Radigue. It's crazy ass year and I'm only one month in. I'm not sure I'll be able to hold on! :)
Thank you so much for your time and very inspirational answers, I truly appreciate it. Enjoy your stay in Slovenia and see you at Cankarjev Dom!
My pleasure. Thanks for asking! I love Slovenia and am really looking forward to coming back!
Slovenian readers will get a chance to enjoy Nate Wooley's unconventional sound next Tuesday (March 18th) at Cankarjev Dom! Hope to see y'all there.