When she was all of 12 years old, Mariel Austin witnessed the Berkeley High School Jazz Ensemble performing Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” and knew instantly where her life was headed. “I was just so moved by it, so stricken,” she says. The power of the big band, and the myriad possibilities inherent in its instrumentation, affected her in a big way.
Specifically, one instrument had her name on it. “I pretty much just pointed to the trombone and said, ‘I want that.’ It was the slide,” she says. “It’s just so unique—other than the slide whistle, which is pretty much a toy.”
That was nearly two decades ago, and Austin has never looked back. She attended her hometown’s Berkeley High, then Cal State Northridge, studying composition and her instrument of choice. Upon graduating, she took gigs with TV programs like American Idol and The Voice, taught trombone, then enrolled in the graduate program at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
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Finally, last year, a master’s in jazz composition—and a number of awards—in hand, Austin released Runner in the Rain, her debut as a leader. The five-track, crowdfunded big-band EP, which primarily features musicians Austin knew from NEC and Berklee, consists of four originals and a reworking of Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer.” All of the arrangements are Austin’s; she also produced.
“I already had kind of a library of band charts,” she says. “So it occurred to me one day—just a lightbulb-over-the-head moment—that I have enough material to make a CD. Of course, I didn’t put all of my charts in there because every composer is going to write a song they hate. I whittled it down to five tracks, and then I decided, hey, it’s an EP.”
What’s most striking about Runner in the Rain is that no two of Austin’s creations sound remotely alike; the music’s complexity and impressive breadth allow a listener to keep discovering nuances with each play. The opening track, “A Rough, Unsorted Compiling of Ways Not to Exist,” was inspired by the harmonic theories of the late composer George Russell. “Mirrorshift,” which has been performed by the New York Youth Symphony, includes a section during which the woodwind players sing rather than play. “One-Way Journey Home” is the only track among the five that actually features Austin on trombone—she wanted to emphasize her writing—while the title track, the only one on which Austin sings, came about, she says, at a time when sad news had reached her.
“I was in Boston and found out that a friend in L.A. had passed away,” she says. “I’d finished reading the [Richard Adams] book Watership Down, and that resonated with me because that’s not a very happy story. There’s a lot of themes of death in that book and it really spoke to me; the coincidence of those events kind of shook me. I inadvertently thought of the big-band project, the EP, as a tribute not just to this person who had died but pretty much everyone who I never got to say goodbye to.”
The inclusion of “Night Dreamer,” says Austin, who now lives in L.A., stemmed from a competition held at a festival where the guest artist was Shorter—the rule of the competition was to arrange one of his tunes. She chose that one and later deemed it worthy of release.
While the big-band format is the one in which Austin has done most of her work thus far—“There’s so much more possibility than there is in a small group”—she describes her next project as chamber jazz: just strings and winds, with more vocals. Given the ambitious nature of her debut, it’ll surely be interesting to watch where Mariel Austin goes from here.
Top photo: Mariel Austin by Tom Grasso