An Unfolding for Natalie Cressman
Was there a song that was your favorite number?
“Shine” was kind of the anthem of the first tour and we kept opening up with it. And Peter Apfelbaum, my godfather, wrote a lot of those horn parts, and I just thought the horn writing on that is some of the best stuff I ever heard. “Night Speaks” and “Flock of Words” are also two of my favorites.
On the road, did Jennifer become your mentor?
My life would not be the same without her. At this point we play together in three different bands (TAB, Wyllys and Van Ghost) and it’s all due to her. She’s a great role model – she’s so strong at being a woman and she doesn’t make it a big deal. She’s just making music at the highest level she can.
What’s it like performing with Wyllys?
It’s a really hard job playing with vinyl because the tracks are almost always out of tune. Sometimes we’re playing directly in between two keys. A lot of it you can’t chart out because you’re dealing with a vinyl that’s in a weird key. A lot of stuff that Jen and I do is making up music on the spot and a lot of what Wade does is vibe with the crowd and figure out the order of the sets. There’s a lot of room to write stuff on the spot and it’s really good for my ear.
How do you balance your career with school?
Early on I saw this train wreck was going to happen so I arranged it so I had classes Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and no classes Thursday and Friday because I knew I would be on tour for three weeks. They kept flying me back into town so I could go to school. It worked out perfectly but I’m always on edge at the start.
When the (Trey) dates get announced I have to clear it with my dean. Usually they’re happy and sometimes they’re not; like I got kicked out of the big band I was supposed to play lead in because I was going to miss three rehearsals for Trey shows.
They also don’t understand the scope of what I’m doing. They haven’t ever heard about Trey and have no concept of how much of an impact Phish has had on the music world.
What are your classes like and what are you studying?
My degree is in jazz performance and the Manhattan School of Music wants everyone to be able to write, perform and teach. I really like Brazilian music, so I’m in a Brazilian combo; I’m taking an arranging and composing class because I like to write. You have improv classes where you have to learn 30 jazz songs by memory; rhythmic analysis where we listen to everything from Michael Brecker to Frank Zappa; and I was also in an Indian music combo and learned their scale structure and singing style.
Tell me about your own band, Natalie Cressman and The Secret Garden. Take me through the decision process to start your own group.
I was writing these songs and I thought ‘I really like to sing’ and I wasn’t taking it seriously until Trey’s band. I started writing music with vocals and I wanted to be able to have an outlet. And because I’ve been doing all these different projects, the music that comes out is pretty unique and hard to classify and I think it’s something that people might be interested in hearing. So a year and a half-ago, I started playing these gigs but I didn’t have a real personnel settled. And through playing with friends, and friends of friends, came up with this band of people that I’m really close with.
I think what I’m trying to do is make jazz relevant because I feel like jazz musicians are living in this little bubble and they’re not trying to connect with the audience. I want to bring the audience in.
How do you go about creating that vibe?
I don’t write anything that swings. I listen to so much indie and Latin music that I’m trying to put that altogether in a way that is refreshing and different and so far it’s working in the very embryonic stages. We just recorded our first album and it’s coming out this summer. We had a lot of fun and it shows on the record.
What did you learn about being a band leader from Trey and Wyllys that you can take back to your own band?
Trey’s not afraid to try out new ideas. He’ll go out on a whim and if he hears something, we’ll take a whole half hour and follow through with it and see if it works and I think that’s important and Wade (Wyllys) is kind of like that too.
Also the way Trey runs rehearsals – it’s like a hang. I’m really into baking, so I’ll bring everyone warm chocolate chip cookies and milk. We’ll hang out, talk and play and then eat some more.
What’s it like being in charge and being the decision maker?
It’s hard because I’m also a little indecisive and I like reasoning things out. I like going with things that are rational. And sometimes being a creative person involves being very irrational, being intuitive and following what feels right.
It’s hard to be in charge and make those calls and what gigs you should go for and what gigs you shouldn’t do.
What’s the significance behind the meaning of the album title: Unfolding ?
What I’m trying to say with the title is that it’s the beginning of a story that is being written about …. I feel all the music I wrote is really personal and really me. I wasn’t trying to do anything with it – it was stream of consciousness writing. The story is unfolding because a lot of people know my name but don’t really know what I’m about. I feel like I’m a good sideman and I love doing that so much, but I wanted a chance to show people how I write and what my project is. The Unfolding is the blooming of a project.