Interview with Natalie Cressman

We are excited to continue our new series featuring women brass players who push boundaries and play outside the box of a standard path for a “conservatory trained musician.” Our first interview features trombonist Natalie Cressman, whom Kate has met freelancing in NYC and it was such a pleasure to read her responses.

7302c6_07ff388914e74c3ba9455dac1d0f20f3Possessing a voice as cool and crystalline as an Alpine stream, Natalie Cressman is a rising singer/ songwriter and trombonist who draws inspiration from a vast array of deep and powerful musical currents. Her new five-song EP Traces reveals her latest evolution, a sleek and sensuous electronica-laced sound with even a trace or two of dance floor sweat. Steadily evolving in many directions, the 25-year-old Cressman has already put down deep roots in several overlapping scenes. A prodigiously talented New York City-based trombonist, she’s spent the past seven years touring the jam band circuit as a horn player and vocalist with Phish‘s Trey Anastasio (and recently played with Phish at Madison Square Garden). Deeply versed in Latin jazz, post-bop, pop, and Brazilian music, she tapped the interlaced traditions on her first two solo albums, 2012’s Unfolding and 2014’s Turn the Sea. The Traces EP follows on the heels of 2016’s Etchings in Amber, a gorgeous duo album with guitarist Mike Bono that introduced Cressman as a formidable musical force without her horn. While the project focuses on songs featuring lyrics she wrote for several Bono compositions, Cressman also wrote words and music for three of her songs, contributing to the atmospheric suite of jazz-inflected, genre-bending tunes. With Traces, Cressman expands her creative reach into post-production, meticulously crafting soundscaped tracks. Her vocal work in increasingly intimate and rhythmically insinuating settings has revealed an artist who can thrive in any setting, from raucous, reverberant halls to packed and pulsing lofts and nightclubs. In an epoch marked by infinite musical possibilities, Natalie Cressman is a singular force who draws from an improbable breadth of sonic realms. Cressman is An artist endorser for King Trombones.

1. From your background in jazz and latin music to playing in the jam band scene with Phish and Trey Anastasio band, it certainly seems like you are a well rounded musician. How did you get started with your own work as a composer/singer-songwriter?

I started writing in high school here and there but I didn’t get fully into it until I moved to NYC to go to college and had opportunities every week to bring in original music and hear it played by my combo.  At first I was writing mostly instrumental songs in the modern-jazz vein, but incorporated a lot of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian rhythmic and harmonic ideas. Those elements just kinda flowed naturally into my music, even when I was arranging standards or doing something more straight ahead. At that time I also was listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and finding work by contemporary artists like Becca Stevens and Gretchen Parlato that took elements of more folk-based singer/songwriter styles and fused it with jazz. Being inspired by them is what really brought me into writing the way I do now, which is a lot more song-based and informed by the lyrics and vocal component.

2. How do you balance touring/working as a side-woman with your own daily maintenance on the trombone and your work with your own music as a singer songwriter?  Any secrets of success for fellow musicians balancing diverse interests and busy schedules?

It’s definitely a struggle to find time to maintain a routine while touring. And sometimes even when I’m in town, if I’m deep into a writing project and have a deadline coming up, or have to learn 15 songs for an upcoming gig, it’s also easy to let my practice routine fall by the wayside. I also play some other instruments (guitar, piano, and bass) that I try to maintain and improve my skills on by shedding too so I’m often left with the feeling that I wished there were more hours in the day.

But with the trombone, I try to stick to similar exercises for a few weeks at a time and then change up my routine every month or so to keep finding new things to work on. I then try touch on those concepts every day even if I’m on the road. Even if my schedule is absolutely insane I make sure to get at least 30 min in before I leave my house or if I’m on the road, allow for at least 30min before soundcheck to have some time to myself to get properly warmed up. I know that’s not a lot, but it’s an achievable goal and so much better than skipping a day and going straight to a gig or rehearsal without feeling warmed up and centered.  Especially if I’m on tour with Trey Anastasio, we often soundcheck for 1-2 hours and the show is around 3.5 hours long, so I am also trying not to tire out my chops by over-practicing on show days. I also like to come up with a routine made up of exercises that kill two birds with one stone – for instance,  where I’m working on slide coordination but in the context of a scale, mode, or pattern, that could also be applied to improvising or theory.

3. Do you think we have a specific role or responsibility as female brass players? How do you incorporate that (or not) into your own life as a musician?

That’s a great question. I do feel some sense of personal responsibility for whatever reason to prove preconceptions about female musicians wrong. Whether it’s from within the band, or the sound guy, or band management, or the audience, there are a lot of instances where my ability is underestimated or my knowledge/experience challenged and I have to say I’m pretty positive it’s because I’m a girl. So I guess I feel this responsibility to be as good as I can be and try and deal with those situations as gracefully as I can. I hope that by modeling professionalism I can change the stereotypes and make it easier for the next generation of female brass players to feel like they’re only being judged on their musical ability and not other superficial factors.

4. Do you see any specific challenges for musicians in today’s climate? How do you mitigate those on your own or when teaching?

I think it’s incredibly difficult to make a living playing music, unless you’re interested in commercial and electronic music (and even then, though the path to success may be a little more defined, it’s still hard).  The music business today is so much more about image, social media engagement, and appeal to key demographics than the music that it can be kinda disheartening when starting your own project. But I’ve found opportunities to still be able to stay true to who I am musically while making a living by diversifying the kinds of music I play. I was trained to be a jazz musician, but I studied a lot of funk and rock repertoire and stylings and now I get a lot of work playing as a sidemen and special guest in more established bands, which allows me to fund my solo project and play shows with my band that might be more for the music’s sake than any kind of financial gain. I think especially for horn players this is a really great approach, but it kind of goes against what I was taught in music school, which was that it is better to be the best at 1 one thing/genre. I’ve found that being stylistically versatile has opened a lot of doors for me, though I may not be “the best” at any one thing. Everyone is different, as is everyone’s definition of success. For me, success is being able to make the music that makes me happy and the most inspired while being able to pay my bills and have a well-rounded life.

5. Is there anything you wished you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger female musicians?

I wish that I had given myself permission to branch out from jazz a little earlier, and I attribute that largely to the institutional bias that jazz is the most sophisticated and therefore the best genre. That sense of musical superiority held me back from learning about other important American music not to mention musical traditions from outside of the U.S. It took me a couple years of being in NYC to readjust this value system I had been taught in music school and realize that there’s a LOT of really high quality music out there that has nothing to do with jazz. Harmonic sophistication is just one element out of so many ways that music can be rich and run deep and looking at the music world as a whole with an open mind only brought me to a greater variety of opportunities.

7. Any resources you recommend? Books, podcasts, recordings that changed your life etc.

Laurie Frink’s teaching method really changed my life in terms of brass technique. I was lucky to study with her while she was still alive but I know a lot of teaching materials about her method are floating around the internet and I really recommend checking it out. It helped me play in a healthy balanced way where I was able to endure long and loud gigs without hurting or burning out my chops. Her technique made it possible for me to maintain good technique no matter what the musical situation or nature of the music, so I could go straight from a New Orleans brass band gig to playing Brazilian choro for instance without any chop readjustments.

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