Q&A with Nate Wooley, one of the most in-demand trumpet players in the burgeoning Brooklyn jazz, improv, and music scenes

"I think we could change a lot of things about how we treat each other, listen to each other, empathize, and care for one another, but that’s a human problem, not a music industry problem. In some ways, as musicians, we do it better than the broad population, but I’ve also seen examples of us (including myself) doing it worse."

Nate Wooley: The Sound of Humanity

Nate Wooley was born in 1974 in Clatskanie, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people in the timber country of the Pacific Northwestern corner of the U.S. He began playing trumpet professionally with his father, a big band saxophonist, at the age of 13. His time in Oregon, a place of relative quiet and slow time reference, instilled in Nate a musical aesthetic that has informed all of his music making for the past 20 years, but in no situation more than his solo trumpet performances. Nate moved to NYC in 2001, and has since become one of the most in-demand trumpet players in the burgeoning Brooklyn jazz, improv, noise, and new music scenes. He has performed regularly with such icons as John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, Eliane Radigue, Ken Vandermark, Fred Frith, Evan Parker, and Yoshi Wada, as well as being a collaborator with some of the brightest lights of his generation like Chris Corsano, C. Spencer Yeh, Peter Evans, and Mary Halvorson. Wooley’s solo playing has often been cited as being a part of an international revolution in improvised trumpet. Along with Peter Evans and Greg Kelley, Wooley is considered one of the leading lights of the American movement to redefine the physical boundaries of the horn, as well as demolishing the way trumpet is perceived in a historical context still overshadowed by Louis Armstrong. A combination of vocalization, extreme extended technique, noise and drone aesthetics, amplification and feedback, and compositional rigor has led one reviewer to call his solo recordings “exquisitely hostile”.

(Nate Wooley / Photo by Julia Dratel)

In 2011 he was an artist in residence at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, NY and Cafe Oto in London, England. In 2013 he performed at the Walker Art Center as a featured solo artist. Wooley was a 2016 recipient of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award and a 2017 recipient of funding from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation for his work with Seven Storey Mountain. Nate Wooley made his premiere with the New York Philharmonic in the fall of 2018 as a soloist in Ashley Fure’s Filament, performed in the debut of the orchestra’s season. Nate Wooley’s new album titled Seven Storey Mountain VI (2020 / Pyroclastic Records). It’s the sixth iteration of his ecstatic song cycle and features contributions from core collaborators: drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall, and violinists C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski — all of whom Wooley considers the series’ “nuclear family.” The album’s extended family comprises lauded pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn; Rhodes players Emily Manzo and Isabelle O’Connor; and electric guitarists Ava Mendoza and Julien Desprez. 

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz (and culture of) influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up with jazz. It was the first music I heard as a kid, and so it will always be part of the context of all the music I make. It’s where I developed my idea of what my sound should be, and my sense of timing and knowledge of harmony and melody. To that extent, it’s influenced all the basics of how I think about music. But, as with all influences, there are positive and negative aspects. At this point, I still love that history of jazz, but I spend more time and energy pushing against those influences than I do embracing them. I’m not doing that out of a sense of dissatisfaction with jazz as a style, but it is just where I am right now. It’s more interesting to me to build upon and against my knowledge of jazz than to try and go deeper within its history.

How do you describe your music philosophy? What touched (emotionally) you from the sound of trumpet?

It’s always been an attempt to express some sort of humanity. I don’t know that I was always able to articulate that, but I know now that it’s what I’ve been looking to do since I started. The trumpet is the machine I chose to do it through and I could go on and on about why that particular instrument, but really it comes down to trying to emulate the human voice; not the idealized singing voice (although that is nice too) but the human voice in all its fragility and awkwardness and possible ugliness. That’s what is most interesting in music to me; being fluent in expressing the beauty and failure of being a human.                                                      (Nate Wooley / Photo by Ziga Koritnik)

"I think Jazz has no socio-cultural implications. It’s just a word. It’s what people pour into it that will have an impact and that, ultimately, is up to them. If someone chooses to use that word as a way of encapsulating an action or a philosophy, and that action or philosophy is a positive force socio-culturally than I am all for it, but to me, it is the action that matters, not the container."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There have been a ton. Everyone you meet teaches you something, but people who have stuck with me in one way or another over the years include Rob Blakeslee, Ron Miles, Laurie Frink, Brian McWhorter, and then you get into the longstanding relationships with Ken Vandermark, Paul Lytton, Eliane Radigue, and Annea Lockwood. That’s just touching the surface of how deep a life in music goes and doesn’t even talk about the peers that I take for granted! I’ve been super lucky to have had them all be generous with their time over the years.

I don’t know if there has been one piece of advice that’s better than any others, but there is a feeling that I’ve gotten from all the people that I mention above (and others I didn’t mention) that they were so excited about the fact that learning about music and changing and developing doesn’t end, but that there is always something new, that you will never master it and can always find new ways to think and express yourself. That is what I get from all my heroes; they are models of people who know that the result of the work, while satisfying, is always just on the surface and doing the work is where the real joy comes from.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Jazz of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I don’t really think about it to be honest. I can’t change what already happened and it seems like a waste of energy to pine for it. The future is out of my control too. I can only work on what seems right to me and hope that I can continue to do that for a long time.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s a tough one! I think we could change a lot of things about how we treat each other, listen to each other, empathize, and care for one another, but that’s a human problem, not a music industry problem. In some ways, as musicians, we do it better than the broad population, but I’ve also seen examples of us (including myself) doing it worse.

"The trumpet is the machine I chose to do it through and I could go on and on about why that particular instrument, but really it comes down to trying to emulate the human voice; not the idealized singing voice (although that is nice too) but the human voice in all its fragility and awkwardness and possible ugliness." (Image courtesy Nate Wooley)

Why do you think that New York Jazz scene continues to generate such a devoted following?

Oh boy, I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that, but it may have something to do with the vitality and diversity of New York in general. There’s just a lot here, whether you are a musician or not, to deal with. If I’m riding the bus to work, I see orthodox Jewish and orthodox Muslim families on the sidewalk, can hear Spanish, Urdu, Polish, Ukrainian, French, and German being spoken, have the opportunity to eat a lot of different foods, do you know what I mean? It’s all side by side and normalized. It’s not some crazy huge swathe of different cultures; it's just New York. It’s normal. So, musically, if you are used to this level of diversity and this amount of ideas that are new to you, then it would be  stranger to find a musician that is dogmatic and closed off about their influences than one that is open to allowing lots of different elements into their music. Add to that the historical pull of the city for artists, and it just becomes a place where taking chances and pushing boundaries feels right, and music that does those things is exciting.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I learned that, for me at least, I am happiest when I am keeping my head down and working and least happy when worrying about what other people are doing or what other people think about what I’m doing. It’s not to say I don’t want people to enjoy my music or to be moved by it, but I can’t make that music for them. If I do that, then I’m not being honest. And, then I’m wasting everyone’s time. I only exist here for a minute and I’m the only me, so the best thing I can do, if it’s important to me to make work and put it into the world, is to do just that and allow it to affect people or not.

What is the impact of Jazz on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I don’t have an opinion on how jazz, however you define it, affects people. I can only speak about the small amount of music that I make. The goal of that music is to attempt a collective experience. As a group, me, the other musicians, you, the people listening to a disc or hopefully seeing live music again soon, are making a conscious decision to engage in something together. That’s the most important part and it is immediately translatable to the world around us. If you can get out of your house to see a show with 100 people you don’t know then you can get out of your house to march in protest with thousands. If you can hear a record of music that is new to you then you can talk to someone that is from a different culture. If you can argue about your favorite record with a friend and remain friends than maybe you can talk with an open mind with someone that doesn’t share your opinions. That’s the possibility of sharing music. It’s the communion that matters, how we define it is counterproductive. 

And so, I think Jazz has no socio-cultural implications. It’s just a word. It’s what people pour into it that will have an impact and that, ultimately, is up to them. If someone chooses to use that word as a way of encapsulating an action or a philosophy, and that action or philosophy is a positive force socio-culturally than I am all for it, but to me, it is the action that matters, not the container.

Nate Wooley- Home

(Image courtesy Nate Wooley)

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