Review | Interview | Photos | Natalie Cressman | New York

Words by: Chadbyrne R. Dickens | Images by: Karina Rykman

Natalie Cressman & The Secret Garden :: 09.06.12 :: Drom :: New York, NY

Click here to jump to the interview, and here to see the photos!

Natalie "Chainsaw" Cressman is a multi-instrumentalist, a triple-threat actress, dancer and singer, who has played at historic venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and extensively overseas; performed and recorded with countless greats including Miguel Zenon, Ingrid Jensen, Sheila E., Carlos Santana and Trey Anastasio. Her first album, Unfolding, was dropped on August 12, and submitted last month to the Grammy nominating committee in the Best Instrumental Jazz Category. The preceding accomplishments and many others belong to the extraordinary student at Manhattan School of Music, who recently turned 21 years old.

On September 6, she performed a CD release show at Drom, an intimate venue in New York City. A traditional and dark joint, straight out of a film noir, complete with shadows, candles, murals and dangling chandeliers, Drom offers an environment conducive to an exemplary jazz experience. Cressman, the trombonist and sole vocalist, was joined onstage by The Secret Garden; six trained musicians including: Chad Lefkowitz-Brown (tenor sax), Ivan Rosenberg (trumpet), Pascal LeBeouf (piano), Martin Nevin (bassist) and Jake Golby (drummer). With the exception of Nevin filling in for Rube Samano on bass, the players were the same core group that recorded in the studio. The band delved its way through classic numbers and songs from the newly released record that all in attendance were celebrating.

The band satisfied the audience through performances of the nine original compositions from the record influenced by multiple genres including Latin and Brazilian music. Unquestionably, as band leader, Cressman forged paths for the solid players behind her to follow. Prior to tackling a cover rendition of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” she stated, “We have a very different take on it” and subsequently delivered a meatier, funkier version of the standard. Cressman and her cohorts provided an alternate take on the non-originals performed throughout the show in an impressive and fresh manner. Her own compositions like “Flip” further proved Cressman’s skills on her horn with exemplary results, while “Waking” provided a call and response experience to remember. Her work with trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg was a magical demonstration of a formidable and powerful brass pairing.

Natalie Cressman and Peter Apfelbaum
by Karina Rykman
Later, Peter Apfelbaum, a fellow Northern Californian saxophonist who can claim having performed with The Grateful Dead and Phish, meshed his horn into the fray with nuance, emotion and reserved raw power. A Cressman mentor and family friend, Mr. Apfelbaum contributes on “That Kind”, the last track on the Unfolding album. When asked about Natalie, he said “She’s just an exceptionally good all-around musician. It's kind of ridiculous. Her sense of rhythm has always been very advanced, going back to when she was about 12 years old. And trombone is a hard instrument - the blowing part is easy, but most trombonists get confused by the slide and try to fight with it. As a result, they get tired quickly and start slowing down. But Natalie, partly from having had years of ballet training, has the arm technique you need to be able to really deal on the horn. And she can really sing, too.”

Cressman is well known and respected among her peers for her versatility. On any given night, between studying and sleep, one may find her sharing licks with talented NYC saxophonist Michael Kammers, adding a unique improvisation riff or background vocal to jam juggernauts The Heavy Pets or Kung Fu at the Brooklyn Bowl, joining her dear friend Jennifer Hartswick in the innovative disco outfit Wyllys & the NY Hustler Ensemble at Sullivan Hall, at one of many venues around her San Francisco hometown or a festival somewhere. Her band mate, Ivan Rosenberg, who she has known since she was 17 when they met at the Grammy Jazz ensembles said, “Natalie is one of those people that's just good at everything. She's an unbelievable composer, and one of the most thoughtful musicians I know. Her ability to transcend genres - play, sing, write, or arrange in any style really, really well is what impresses me most. You don't see that much.”

Natalie Cressman and Secret Garden
by Karina Rykman
Cressman’s popularity has increased immeasurably since the day two years ago when she was asked to replace her father, Jeff Cressman, as Trey’s trombonist, who had rejoined Santana. She has impressed everyone in her wake and continues to do so. Cressman is more effective engaging with her audience within the songs she is clearly very confident in. During these particular numbers, she consistently demonstrates the chops to become a bonafide front woman with a presence similar to Belinda Carlisle or a tempered Shirley Manson, even if her subtle style is more reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. She paid successful homage to Mitchell, who inspired her to become a singer years ago, with an interesting reworking of Charlie Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Hat” that was also once covered by Mitchell. The compositions she has constructed are very challenging to sing, and she conquers them in a successful manner while reminding us that her appeal is mainly due to her musicianship and sharp tools she possesses within her craft.

Ultimately, one doesn’t need to wield a chainsaw, like the drug dealers in the infamous scene from “Scarface”, to leave an impression; one with such a moniker only need to share their rare talent to make an indelible mark. Having played 39 shows over the past two years with The Trey Anastasio Band, and the 2012 tour having started this past week, with Trey claiming that Natalie “is an incredible player”, one should go see/hear for one’self.

Before her CD release show, I was fortunate to sit down with Miss Cressman to discuss her career.

Read on to check out the interview!

Natalie Cressman by Karina Rykman
JamBase: Are you the composer on all the tracks on the new album and what statement are you trying to make with it?

Natalie Cressman: I wrote 7 of the 9 songs on the album and the others are standards. I first introduced some of the songs two years ago, and the personnel has rotated since then until it kind of settled in, and we decided to record the CD. My aim of the album, with playing in so many bands and an eclectic mix of genres, my experiment was to see if all those things affected the way I write and the way I play and what that would sound like and that’s basically what I strived to do with this and it is still a jazz record with improvisation, but it’s got a nice mix of the Latin music I grew up playing, the jazz I am studying at school, and what I have grown up loving to play and a little of the influence that the jam stuff has had on me, but I’m trying to figure out who I am and what my voice is in terms of composition.

How did you choose the trombone and do you play other instruments?

I started playing the trombone because my dad plays it. I played piano and sang in the beginning, but it fell by the way side a bit as I moved forward with the trombone, but I do play a little bit of bass and write on piano.

You are a trombone player first, is there a particular message you are trying to convey or are you just recalling memories when you are writing lyrics?

I have a really vivid imagination and usually the songs start with a seed of something really close to me, but once its finished it’s maybe someone else’s story. Since I was young, I like doing a lot of creative writing and I try to make it a little subtle and not just my story.

“The Whistle Song” is about your Grandmother, you wrote the music first, is that the way you will approach writing music and lyrics always in the future?

For two of the songs that are on the album, they both just ended up being instrumental tracks that I added lyrics, but there other songs where I utilized the opposite approach. I think it’s great to write starting at different points, whether it be with the bass line, the lyrics or melody. It keeps things fresh while stopping things from sounding all the same by approaching it all the same way.

How did Kickstarter work out for you and what was the greatest challenge in making the record?

Kickstarter was great and exceeded my expectations. I had a lot of involvement from family and people who knew me through Trey’s band. The School of Phish banded together and each threw in $20 and made a big donation of $500 and we are going to play their party cruise in November. I learned many lessons making this album and all the logistics that go into being a band leader. You can’t get your feet wet until you go all in and hire a publicist, a promoter and throw CD release concerts and there is a lot of organization involved that I continue to do all by myself. I am glad that I have had this experience.

Chad Dickens and Natalie Cressman
by Karina Rykman
Composing these complex compositions – who do you credit for your early success? Your school, parents, your dad’s experience? Hard work?

Well, I’d first credit the Bay area music scene as a whole because that is what I came up in, even before I was playing music but just going to concerts there, and people there in general wear a lot of hats and play a variety of music like salsa, modern jazz – there is a lot of versatility in those players and I am very interested in embodying that myself.

Did your Dad’s experience as an engineer help you out on Unfolding and do you anticipate it doing so in the future?

Yes. He has really helped me a lot. Just having him there for the sessions – just as a dad was great – but he also happens to be a brilliant recording engineer and he made everything so great and is such a nice human being and put everyone at ease and it gives me a leg up with the recording quality and everything in post that we do, with it still being a really live mix with everyone in one room playing together, but he made it sound excellent and it has a lot to do with why people like it, even if they don’t realize it.

Who is your favorite act to sit-in with?

I like the jam thing and some of the funk that I’ve been exposed to and I really love dance music. I’d like to be able to do that with my music and I think we are edging slowly towards being able to do more of that. The Heavy Pets was a lot of fun, and so was Kung Fu, it has all been a lot of fun. I also enjoyed playing with Van Ghost for about 10 tour dates earlier this year.

Natalie Cressman by Karina Rykman
What have you learned from Jennifer Hartswick?

She is like my big sister and she was in my shoes 10 years ago so she has a lot of great advice. I admire who she is as a person and a musician. Jen is so respectful and such a badass, yet so humble and approachable. She is my role model in a lot of ways and she just treats everyone so well and is so great, I just wish that was the standard with everyone, but’s it’s not. She is an incredible human being with an incredible musical voice.

I would probably not be a huge Branford Marsalis fan today, if he had not sat in with The Grateful Dead in 1990. How do you think your participation with the Trey Anastasio Band has parlayed into much broader acceptance and success with jam and other fans outside of jazz?

It’s really changed my life. When I got the call, I was a freshman at a music conservatory and I still am in the music conservatory, and it has given another dimension and opened up opportunities to a whole other audience who are able to hear the music and I have been very pleasantly surprised by how they have embraced the music and how much they like this jazz. The music with TAB is amazing and complex on a whole other level, but it requires much of the same skills that jazz musicians use – improvisation, some of the horn parts in TAB are written by jazz greats, including Peter Apfelbaum.

To set the record straight, once and for all, did a friend come up with your nickname of “Chainsaw” or was it Trey Anastasio?

My friend came to a show on Valentine’s Day in 2010 and made me a card with a stick figure picture with a trombone and it was really weird so he added a caption that said, “trombone or chainsaw?” So I showed it to the band and everyone thought it was hilarious. A mixture of Trey thinking it was funny and announcing it that way, and Toph the lighting designer who joked with me that we should design a pedal with a chainsaw sound for me. I think because it is a complex story, and Trey announced me that way that he is given credit for it. He can take the credit. (laughs)

What concert would you currently attend as a fan?

St. Vincent. I am also a fan of Tedeschi Trucks Band. Huge fan.

Thank you for sharing some time with me, Natalie. Looking forward to following your success.

Thank you. It’s an exciting time!

Click through to see the photos!

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