Natalie Cressman is a trombonist and vocalist. She is a solo artist and a member of the Trey Anastasio Band. Natalie recently discussed how she became interested in the trombone, how she became a part of TAB and her creative process. For more info on Natalie Cressman, check out http://www.nataliecressman.com/
Both of your parents are jazz musicians. What was your earliest musical memory?
One of my earliest memories is of this cassette tape my mom made for me that I fell asleep to religiously ever night. It was a whole cassette of her singing lullabies with her guitarist. Even as a baby, my parents would both have late-night gigs, so they’d drop me off at my grandparents’, aunt’s or neighbor’s house with my little cassette tape. And bedtime was always a piece of cake for whoever was looking after me because they’d just put on the tape and it would be like my mom was there singing me to sleep. In retrospect I think it was a pretty genius idea, and listening back now the arrangements of the lullabies she did are pretty sweet.
How did you first get interested in playing the trombone?
Well, my dad made it look really cool, haha! His tone is like butter, and the way a trombone can mimic the human voice so well was really appealing. Ever since I was a toddler I’d sidle up to the mouthpiece and try to make a sound. The only thing is he made it look so easy, I was totally frustrated when first learning how to play because I sounded like utter crap in comparison. But me and my best friend at the time started playing together when we were 10 and my dad would arrange little simple duets for us to play, so it was about listening and making music together from the get-go. I learned so much from playing with him and watching him perform.
Who are some of your favorite trombonists and why?
One of my all-time faves is Frank Rosolino. I love how dynamic his lines are and his pocket is out of this world. His playing was so unpredictable and yet he makes it sound effortless and joyous. I also have really gotten into Ze da Velha lately, who is an awesome Brazilian trombonist that has played on some amazing choro recordings. Great tone and lyricism. In terms of more modern guys, Josh Roseman and André Hayward have always been really influential to me.
What do you remember most about your first time onstage?
As a little girl, I used to just hop up onstage at my parents’ gigs before the show or during set breaks and start singing, no inhibitions whatsoever. I once “opened” for the great vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson when I was about five: I think I sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”! I was just having a good time, and not at all concerned with the audience. Later on, things changed and I’d get shy and nervous when I’d come up, and rightly so because some of my first times onstage playing trombone were sitting in on my dad’s gigs, playing with an amazing salsa band, or subbing in my godfather Peter Apfelbaum’s band. I was mostly nervous because I really revered these musicians I was playing with and wanted to make a good impression. Over time I’ve gotten back to the place of just trying to have fun and enjoy playing with the other guys onstage.
What do you remember most about the first time you met Trey?
His boundless energy! I remember the first time we got together, we hung out at his house for like 7 hours and worked through the many horn charts. There had been so many iterations of TAB, sometimes with 5 people in the horn section, that it took a couple days for us to condense the arrangements to work for the three of us. But he was just so happy and excited about the music, and we’d go off on tangent, watch an awesome youtube video, then get back to work, and the hours just flew by. He’s such a great guy and a really amazing bandleader. He makes every moment so fun it never feels like work. I didn’t realize what a marathon of a rehearsal it was until we got home and then I was like, “Damn, I’ve got a lot of music to learn.”
How did you become a member of TAB?
I really owe it to my dad going out on a limb and suggesting me as his sub! My dad had done a couple TAB runs in ’05, and he got the call in ’09 to go back on the road with Trey. But he couldn’t take it because it conflicted with a Santana tour, and playing with Santana has been his main gig for the past 15 years. When he turned it down, they asked him if he knew of any trombonists to recommend and he gave me a glowing recommendation, at the very end of which he mentioned that I was only 18 and happened to be his daughter. Lucky for me, Trey and his manager took him seriously and he called me up! It was my freshman year of college and I was just doing sitting in my dorm room doing homework when Trey called. We talked about the project and, of course I said I was interested and sent him some tracks that I’d played on. Then next step was an informal “audition,” where I sat in on a gig with Jen Hartswick on the Upper East Side. We hit it off both musically and personally right from the get-go. The next morning she called Trey up and gave him the go ahead and I was hired!
How does the songwriting approach in TAB differ from the songwriting process in your solo work?
The songwriting approach differs from song to song in TAB so that’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes Trey come in with a fully fleshed out song, with intricate horn arrangements or vocal arrangements already complete and printed out for us to read down. Of course, nothing’s ever set in stone, so we may take out certain parts or change a voicing here and there. But then other times, there’ may be just a song demo of Trey singing and playing guitar, and the arrangement kind of grows organically as Russ & Tony finding a groove that compliments the song and the sections of the song become more distinct. Then sometimes we as a horn section come up with simple horn lines here and there, or sometime Trey will sing a line to us that we’ll play in unison or harmonize. And vocally, we’ll often add some “ooh’s” to thicken the texture of certain sections. Both ends of spectrum have resulted in awesome TAB songs, and I like that there’s no formulaic way of developing new material because it keeps things fresh. With my band, I’ll typically write things out to be pretty complete, but then when I bring it into rehearsal with my band we’ll often make a lot of changes to it as my band mates add their ideas to the mix, and I can finally hear what was in my head fully realized. So in my band, it’s a bit of both, but similar to Trey, there is an endless amount of tweaks that are made. Nothings ever “done” : there’s this constant process of revising and trying to make it even better. How often do you find yourself writing songs? In the last year, I’ve been writing a lot, though they’ve been almost entirely collaborations or songs written for other people’s projects. But I basically write when I have the time to, so sometimes as much as a month will go by without me completing a song. But I definitely sit down to write, be it just lyrics, or fully fledged songs, at least a couple times a week. Writing music is possibly my favorite thing to do, so I try to write as often as possible to keep myself happy.
What inspires you lyrically?
Lyrically, I love telling stories that are either really personal or really specific, but finding a way to open up the language and keep it nuanced enough to relate to anyone. Most of my songs are about interpersonal relationships, that’s where I find the most to talk about, but I could be using the specifics of one situation as a metaphor for a larger feeling. There are a billion songs written about love and loss in this world, so each time I write, I challenge myself to find fresh and unusual ways to say what I have to say about such classic themes.
Turn The Sea is your latest solo release. What was the first song written for Turn The Sea?
The title track, “Turn the Sea,” was actually the first song that I wrote for the album, though at the time I wrote it the thought of making another album hadn’t even occurred to me yet. I was getting really into Wayne Shorter’s playing at the time, specifically his work with Joni Mitchell. He’s a master at “word painting” : it totally blew my mind the way he would echo a phrase of Joni’s with a musical comment that totally paints the exact image of her words. I was trying to write this section of the song in a way that it would feel like waves crashing down, and that image kind of guided the whole song.
You’re playing a Halloween show in Las Vegas with moe. This year. How did you get started with the Everyone Orchestra?
I first played with EO at Summercamp Music Festival maybe 3 or 4 years back, and have loved working with Matt ever since! The experience totally puts you on the spot musically but it’s been a great lesson in opening up and thinking on my feet. I love the magic that can happen when the music is totally improvised! And I’ve met a lot of great musicians in the process, including Al and Vinnie from moe.
You tour a ton. What have been some of your strangest moments on the road?
Oh wow, there are just so many I don’t know where to start….Here’s just one short story! I was taking pictures with a fan after a TAB show, and let me mention this fan was about 6 foot 5, and all the sudden he just picked me up and started carrying me away from the tour bus. At the time none of the rest of the band was around and I freaked out at him and screamed. I’m generally pretty shy and am pretty sure I’ve never screamed at anyone in my life, but I was not ok with what was going down! I’m sure he meant no harm but wouldn’t anyone be freaked out if you were alone on the street when someone just picked you up and tried to cart you away?
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your career?
There a lot of challenges in music, but I think the biggest one I’ve come up against is just staying true to yourself no matter what anyone says or thinks. Criticism can be brutal in art because who you are and what you do are so intertwined and often inseparable. I may be a young woman in a male-dominated form, but I owe it to myself to rock exactly who I am and not be swayed by a hurtful comment or belittlement here or there. With each musical opportunity I take on, I try not to forget who I am, where I come from, and the music that’s inspired me to want to be a musician in the first place.
Do you have a quote or motto that you live by?
My little mantra before I go onstage is “Do your best, be yourself, and enjoy every minute of it”. Simple but it totally does the trick for me!
What advice would you give to musicians just starting out?
I would stress the importance of playing music with other people and learning how to really truly listen when you’re playing. It’s easy to think that the best way to get good is to spend hours practicing alone in your room, though practicing is definitely important. But the biggest growth I’ve seen in myself has happened when playing with other musicians that are better than me, and those experiences inspire me to get better. It can be equally easy to get wrapped up in your own playing and forget that you are playing with a bunch of other human beings onstage, and some amazing things can happen when you take a second to listen in to others and build something as a group.