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Published: 2017/03/05
by Mike Greenhaus

Traces of Natalie Cressman

Natalie Cressman was an 18-year-old freshman at the Manhattan School of Music when she scored the trombone chair in Trey Anastasio’s solo band. Her father, Jeff Cressman, has collaborated with Santana for many years and played trombone in a big-band version of Trey Anastasio Band in 2006 and 2007. When Anastasio decided to aid horns to a reformed TAB in 2010, the elder Cresssman was unable to rejoin the group due to his Santana commitments and recommended his daughter for the spot. Natalie immediately clicked with the ensemble and forged a close relationship with longtime TAB trumpeter and vocalist Jen Hartswick, who has grown into something of her musical older sister.

Cressman’s also become a marquee name in her own right, gigging out with her own Natalie Cressman Band and sitting in with a variety of jazz and jam players. Along with Hartswick and TAB saxophonist James Casey, Natalie recently contributed to Phish’s 2016 studio effort Big Boat and helped the group ring in 2017 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This year, she will release a pair of very different records: a jazzy EP Traces with her own outfit and a singer-songwriter collection with Mike Bono. While back home in the Bay Area for few performances and family visits, the 25-year-old New York musician discussed her recent studio releases, her NYE Phish sit in and how she’s avoided the Millennial tag.

You are in the midst of a number of projects, but let’s start talking about your new album with Mike Bono, Etchings in Amber. How did you and Mike first connect, and what led to this EP?

We started playing together in college. We met at a jam session that a friend had put together and then, when Mike moved back to New York after graduating from Berklee School of Music, he started playing electric guitar in my band. Then, we had this one opportunity to play a gig as just the two of us, and we did some of my music as a duo. We just love the sound and the freedom that playing as just the two of us allows, so we started writing music together for that project. We had this monthly gig on the Upper West Side at this place called the Dead Poet, and we used that opportunity to test out new songs. So, song by song, we built up enough repertoire for an album.

In terms of the writing, did you each bring in your own ideas or write as a duo?

It’s a bit of both. There’s six songs on the record where Mike wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. And three of the songs are songs where I primarily wrote the music and then Mike and I arranged it as a duo. There are a couple sections of things that we wrote together while we were rehearsing but, for the most part, we would send stuff back and forth and collaborate remotely.

You explore a bunch of different textures on the album, yet you shy away from your signature instrument. Did you consciously decide not to play trombone or did you more naturally move away from the instrument?

When we originally started talking about the duo record, we thought that maybe a trombone solo could fit in somewhere, but then, with the way the texture of the album came out, it felt like it would be a little intrusive to just put an arbitrary trombone solo in. So that’s how it ended up being only vocals and guitar. And then I also had my full band EP coming out—at the time, I didn’t know which was gonna come out first—but there’s the horn writing on that, so I was already fulfilled in the trombone department, being able to the write horn parts for my band project. I didn’t sweat that it ended up being only vocals [laughs]. It was nice to dig into my identity as a singer without the trombone component. Normally, I’m mostly splitting my duties between voice and trombone, so it was nice to just focus on being a vocalist on that project.

You studied trombone in school and play with an assortment of different combos. Did you take voice lessons as well?

I’ve actually sung my whole life. My mom is a vocalist and voice teacher, and so when I was young, I was really into musical theater. I even did some professional theater in the Bay Area that involved some singing. I was in the children’s chorus out here in San Francisco before I went to Broadway. But once I started getting serious about trombone, [singing] was definitely secondary to playing trombone. When I moved to New York, I was planning to focus on trombone, and then I started singing backup in Trey’s band, and that really awakened my desire to sing and write songs with lyrics. It went from there.

You mentioned that your band also has an EP coming out. Can you give us a little background on the musicians in your current band and how they entered your orbit?

It’s changed a lot over the years from my first album. I had the band Secret Garden, and it’s definitely evolved from there, but most of the people that are in my band and on the record are people that I met at Manhattan School of Music or I had been playing with even before then. So the new album is definitely the furthest away from the jazz world that I came up in and met all these guys in. Part of what made us all stick together is that we all are really stylistically eclectic in what we like to play. For instance, the bass player on my last two records is an electronic music producer, who goes by the name of Jonathan Stein. I’ve known him since high school. He was a classical bass major at Manhattan School of Music, but now he mostly does electronic music. I also went to college with Ivan Jackson, who is part of the group BassTracks. He really had a great year career-wise. They did that Chance The Rapper song “No Problem” that was nominated for a Grammy. We’ve been playing together all throughout college and he’s been the trumpet player in my band, and he produced my EP. So it’s definitely been a very “in-house” thing—very home grown. A lot of us even lived together for a time in Brooklyn. It’s been a very natural evolution, with where all of us are at creatively, in kind of inspiring each other and pushing the envelope of what’s possible with a live band mixed with electronics.

You studied jazz in college. Has that always been your first love?

I’ve always been pretty all over the place with my music tastes. I listened to pop growing up as a kid, but I love world music, especially Cuban and Brazilian. I also grew up exposed to the original jazz scene in the Bay Area and listening to reggae. I like good music, and it doesn’t matter what genre, but when I went to college for jazz, I was definitely more focused on that. By the time those four years were up, I was ready for something else, and I was already checking out music way outside of that. I’ve also started to get into singer-songwriter stuff recently.

Your father played with Santana and Trey Anastasio for years, and you joined TAB in 2011. How familiar were you with the jam scene before you joined his band?

For the most part, my dad raised me on a lot of classic rock—we’re total Beatles buffs. We can probably sing any Beatles song in their whole discography, ‘cause that was just in the house growing up. I actually wasn’t super aware of the jam scene until I started working with Trey and came at it from that perspective later in life, which I know kind of shocks a lot of fans. But I also think Trey likes working with people that are outside of his wheelhouse, because he likes bringing in a lot of different ingredients to his music. I think it was probably refreshing that I wasn’t a huge Phish head.

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