Tracing Her Next Steps: Natalie Cressman Talks New Solo EP, Touring With TAB & More

Earlier this month Natalie Cressman issued The Traces EP featuring five new original songs written by the multi-talented trombonist/vocalist. Cressman will celebrate the release of the EP with a number of shows on the East Coast this weekend where she’ll be accompanied by regular collaborator, guitarist Mike Bono.

In addition to the new studio output and solo shows, Cressman will also once again be joining the Trey Anastasio Band on tour this spring and summer mixing headlining dates with several festival stops. The ever-busy singer-songwriter recently did a stint with the Everyone Orchestra and will be performing at an upcoming James Brown Dance Party event at Brooklyn Bowl.

I had a chance to chat about why she looks up to Trey, her recent experiences performing at Carnivale in Brazil, and what to expect from Natalie’s tour schedule in the coming months.

JAMBASE: You’ve been incredibly busy. Where are you now?

NATALIE CRESSMAN: It’s been crazy! I was just in Brazil for two weeks, got back for twenty-four hours, then took off on a redeye to play some shows with Everyone Orchestra ([one in Asheville and two in Charleston]. Now I’m back in New York and there is a blizzard! It’s forced me to slow down today which is good [laughs].

JAMBASE: That sounds really soothing, working on jazz sounds as the snow falls.

NC: Heck ya, it’s not a bad way to spend the day.

JAMBASE: And how were the Everyone Orchestra shows to play? Those seem like such a blast to be a part of.

NC: They are so fun! It’s so cool to just show up and make music on the spot instead of stressing over learning songs and such. I love just showing up and being creative and spontaneous. It is a really fun change of pace for me since most of the stuff that I do is very rehearsed. So, I definitely enjoy the freedom a lot.

I feel like it’s really great to keep my songwriting skills sharp, you know? Having to come up with little hooks on the spot like that. Even if they’re not the best songs I’ve ever written, I think it’s a great way to practice moving past any kind of writer’s block. Having to be up in front of people and come up with something on the spot — you just have to create.

JAMBASE: Absolutely. Like when they tell you if you feel stagnant to shake your bones and go for a jog, or if you have writer’s block, to do the unthinkable: write!

NC: Yes! Exactly. That’s exactly it. It forces me to just create and I love that.

JAMBASE: So to fill everyone in, can you explain how the music works for you as musicians when you’re a part of an Everyone Orchestra show?

NC: Of course. Well, as I said, it’s all completely made up on the spot. No setlist or anything like that. There’s literally no way to prepare for it other than being focused, I guess, and ready to go in any direction. Being open-minded, musically. Matt [Butler] leads us through the songs in the moment using different hand signals, and dry erase boards.

It can be very vague. For instance, the other night, Matt flashed a board with the words, “Music Garden,” on it to Jeff Mosier who was writing the lyrics. Then he came up with a whole song about music coming out of his garden, you know? Other times it can just be a chord progression, and he’ll flash “Funk in A” or something, and it’s just the jumping off point for the jam. He likes to make it go in a few different directions, too, so there will be different soloists throughout, or a “B Section” where it goes to a different place, and the vibe totally changes up in the same song. So it all varies.

What’s super cool about it, is it really does depend on what musicians are there, that night, in the group. You can’t really recreate anything another time, so it’s just this nice magical moment that just you and the audience share, and it’s never going to be that way again. I think it’s really fun to look at it that way.

JAMBASE: It really is a unique experience, and so interactive.

NC: Totally, he’ll get the audience participating and singing songs. And you know, he shows the audience what he shows us, so it’s a very inclusive thing all around.

JAMBASE: Definitely. And aside from the Everyone Orchestra gigs, you’re about to release your solo LP, you’ve been touring for your duet with Mike Bono and you have a super stacked schedule coming up with TAB this year taboot. In what role are you finding you’re most in the pocket, or most enjoying playing right now?

NC: It can vary, definitely. It just depends. I think I get a lot out of playing my own music, because it’s so personal. Getting to share that and building a sound with my musicians is such a rewarding thing, and I’m more invested in that than anything else.

I do think that the other experiences help to round everything out. It’s really nice to have to stretch, and play in different styles. Not to mention, in all the projects I’m working on I take on such different roles: I’m a sidewoman, I’m a frontwoman, I’m a writer, I’m a backup singer — there are just so many hats that I wear as a musician, and it’s nice to kind of juggle that and keep it all going at once.

And it can totally depend on what I’m into at the time. Right now, since I just got back from Brazil, I’m super into Brazilian music. I actually studied at a camp this summer in California on the Russian River under a bunch of great Brazilian maestros. It was super fun to be in the student role again and even just observing new stuff. Because in music, even though… you get to a certain point professionally…there’s always more to know. I am always learning, and I want to be learning and staying in that student role because I feel like that’s what makes you better, when you’re still working on improving yourself.

JAMBASE: Absolutely. And was the camp connected your recent travels to Brazil?

NC: Yes, one of the teachers I worked with invited me to go to Brazil with him for Carnivale, so that’s what I was doing. It was a fun thing with some fun sitting in involved, in the Northeast corner of Brazil. The style of music there is called frevo. It’s very brass-centric, and very specific to Northeast Brazil.

Spok, who I stayed with, is one of the top Frevo musicians. My parents were actually down there too, because the American consulate set up this exchange concert that they did where they stayed with musicians in Brazil. It was kind of showing the mix, and the similarities and differences between frevo and jazz. So, kind of like a jazz-frevo-exchange concert [laughs]. I got to play that gig with them, and got to sit in with my friend Spok’s different gigs throughout the week.

JAMBASE: What a cool experience that your parents were there at the same time. I think I saw a photo of you with your Dad while you were there, was that during one of the shows?

NC: Yes, that was on the last night to close the whole Carnivale week, right before Ash Wednesday. They have what they call the “Orcestrao” which is an orchestra of about 200 musicians playing frevo together for over three hours from about 3 a.m. until after the sun comes up while everyone just parties in the streets like crazy. It was super fun.

JAMBASE: That sounds incredible. Sounds like something that would happen at JazzFest, which you’ll be playing with TAB this year, correct?

NC: Yes, I’m super excited for that.

JAMBASE: Your schedule with TAB is really busy this year compared to last year it looks like.

NC: Honestly, I think it’s our busiest year ever, in terms of just dates in a row. There was one or two years when we did two little tours in a year, but to kind of be involved with TAB from April until July will be nice so we can kinda get into the groove of it and it doesn’t have to be over so soon [laughs]. There’s a lot of cities on this run that I’m looking forward to visiting for the first time myself, like Austin – I’ve never even been to Texas! So that will be cool. Montana too. Some places to check off my list, you know. Red Rocks will be awesome too.

JAMBASE: And in between now and the launch of TAB tour in the South, you will be releasing your own EP, Traces, in New York, right?

NC: Yea! The EP came out March 3 “on the streets” [laughs], but we’ll be doing some CD release shows next weekend. Just a few in the North East, then one in the Bay Area at the Boom Boom Room on May 11. So that will be fun, a nice hometown show!

JAMBASE: Definitely. So where does the music on this EP fit with your past efforts?

NC: It’s definitely the furthest step I have taken away from jazz since I started writing music. I’ve started using this recording software called Ableton Live and it’s also changed the way the music sounds. It’s much more produced now, where it used to be kind of a live sound. It’s more layered with a variety of genres compared to past work.

JAMBASE: Absolutely. And weren’t you living with your band when you recorded this EP?

NC: Yes. It made it really nice to make the music we wanted without racing against the clock just to finish it within studio time right then and there. That difference was huge for me this time around.

JAMBASE: Sometimes in creative work, stepping back and taking even 10 minutes can make all the difference in the world to give you a fresh perspective when you return.

NC: Yes, and honestly, it was sometimes like stepping back and taking weeks to look at it differently! [laughs] Because I’ve been traveling so much over the last two years, we’d track all the parts and review it, but then I’d be back on the road or something else would come up, and it would take a bit of time to return to. In the meantime, the ideas I got from reflecting on the music were directly related to having more time to think about it all.

In that way, the logistical problems were like a blessing in disguise, because it gave me a chance to think about what these songs needed, and execute it from there.

JAMBASE: That’s really cool. And in the same tone, how will your solo work fit in with the busier TAB schedule you have on the horizon this year?

NC: (Laughing) That’s a good question … I’m basically unable to do much with my bands until later in the Summer. I’d love to play more, but it can be tough to find time logistically to find time for what I consider my art and my passion.

So, while I’d love to say, “we’re gonna head out on an international tour! Hit all the major cities!” [laughs] We’ll probably be more of the weekend-warrior types with a few shows in a row on weekends later on this year.

JAMBASE: Nice, we’ll look forward to the dates as the summer winds down. And how was your experience on New Year’s Eve playing with Phish at Madison Square Garden?

NC: It was super fun, I loved it. I’ve never played an indoor concert to that many people, it was a trip. The energy was insane and the choreographed “Petrichor” routine they had going on was pretty amazing and I had to remind myself to actually focus and just keep playing, instead of totally stopping to watch which I kept wanting to do! [laughs] “Try not to zone out, there’s work to be done,” I kept telling myself. It was really impressive to see.

JAMBASE: What a way to start the year. Regarding Trey as a band leader, what have you learned from working with him?

NC: Well, apart from being a really brilliant musician, he’s a great human being. I could go on and on about the many different things I’ve learned from him, but something that struck me from the get go, is his work ethic. I think it’s easy to get complacent at a certain point, when you have accolades, and a big audience, you know, stop striving. I think Trey still has this energy of wanting the music and the experience for the audience members to be as good or as positive as possible. He’s always tweaking little things about the music and the show, just seeing how to finesse it and make it better. He just has that ceaseless desire to the best he can, and that is super impressive to me. It’s something that I try to keep in mind when I’m going through my own things as a musician.

I also just love how he is not afraid to be weird and be his own person, and I think that’s a noble way to be. He doesn’t worry about the music he writes fitting into a pre-prescribed box. He loves a lot of different music and it comes through in what he writes, and he is very free with mixing genres and the way he thinks about music. That is really heartening to me to see him do that with Phish so seamlessly since I have such an eclectic taste in music myself. I sometimes feel the pressure to conform or follow a path that is already very established. It’s nice to have a role model championing doing your own thing and thinking outside the box.

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