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Natalie Cressman Turns Down the Volume

A.D. Amorosi talks to the trombonist who's also a singer/songwriter and summarizes her career, which so far is definitely a case of both/and

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Natalie Cressman (photo: Lauren Desberg)
Natalie Cressman (photo: Lauren Desberg)

If we’re going out on a limb and calling the music that trombonist, vocalist, and songwriter Natalie Cressman makes—as soloist, as side-and-session person, in a duet setting with Brazilian guitarist Ian Faquini—“conversational,” we must describe what’s being said, what its tone implies, and how “conversation” itself signifies the ties that bind: in other words, family.

Let’s take Cressman and Faquini’s new album, Auburn Whisper, as an example. On “Already There,” the duo uses the convivial but intentional sotto voce that lovers do, playing off each other’s sense of calm and closeness. Cressman’s vocal is clarion-clear but there’s a quaver in it that makes it a perfect counterpart to the warm, relaxed breathiness of her trombone. Whether in multitracked harmony or solo, her brass playing is emotive and free, occasionally tough, always tender. 

That Cressman and Faquini are a couple in both music and life will likely come as no surprise to anyone who hears this music. But it may not be obvious at first that their conversation includes other family members as well. Auburn Whisper was recorded and mixed by Jeff Cressman at Sandy Cressman’s Bay Area studio during the COVID-19 quarantine. Jeff Cressman spent nearly 20 years as Santana’s trombonist and has worked as a session player for Flora Purim and Tito Puente. Sandy Cressman is an avatar of Brazilian vocal jazz and a collaborator with pianist Marcos Silva, Airto Moreira’s longtime pianist/mentor. Sandy and Jeff also happen to be Natalie Cressman’s parents.

“Having an amazing trombonist for a father meant tagging along to his gigs, even having him drag me out on stage with him when I was a baby,” the younger Cressman says during a hang with Faquini’s family in Vitória, capital of Brazil’s Espírito Santo province. “My mom, too. I spent forever being part of who she was as a singer, on stage and off. Both of my parents’ music has been a part of me since birth.”

Are her family connections strong and deeply influential to her work? Absolutely. But at the same time, she’s a rugged individualist who’s far from exclusively Latin-centric; in addition to her collaborations with Faquini, she plays in Broadway pit orchestras and has jam-band cred as part of Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio’s ensemble. Make no mistake: Natalie Cressman’s doing her own thing.

“I used to feel this pressure to be louder, more aggressive. Maybe to fit in with the male energy of my peers at the time. Now I’m older and wiser and I know I can do the softer volumes.”

Starting life in northern California, the young Cressman came up in various music camps. She got “inducted into the tribe of trombonists” at age eight, with her father and famed ’bone man Wayne Wallace as her earliest teachers. Despite her lineage, taking up the instrument could easily have been awkward, but “what saved me from any weirdness,” she says, “is that I am, admittedly, partially a nerd, and that what I was doing with the trombone wasn’t connected to marching bands, say, in high school.” 

Watching her father play in salsa bands—“dance music where young people reacted positively to the trombone”—provided Cressman with a unique idea of what a brass instrument could be. “Plus, he played with Santana, which gave him rock-star status. The trombone was never a corny instrument. I saw how it could have a place in every style.”

Cressman is also quick to state that much of her work as a singer/songwriter was inspired by her mother. In particular, she fondly recalls rehearsals of Sandy’s vocal trio Pastiche. “So much of what I do with my own projects, as well as when I tour with Trey Anastasio, comes down to being agile at creating vocal harmonies,” she says. “That totally comes from my mom’s work, as well as her being a source of wisdom. Having been harmonizing with her since I was a kid primed me for doing this as an adult. Also, there’s her love of Brazilian music, which has been so much of a component for what I do. Records such as Dori Caymmi’s Brazilian Serenata, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Tom collaboration albums, and pretty much all MPB [Música Popular Brasileira] were part of my daily household listening. I think I was born to that Dori Caymmi record.”

Currently at the beginning stages of recording a new album (“celebrating the work of Milton Nascimento with Natalie as my trombonist”), Sandy Cressman believes that the spirits of Brazilian music trailed her for decades before she made her first solo disc, 1999’s Homenagem Brasileira.

“Pop radio growing up meant that you heard artists such as Stevie Wonder and Sérgio Mendes’ Brasil ’66,” she says. “I was blown away by that sound. While in college, I studied Latin jazz. While we were dating, my husband introduced me to Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer album with Nascimento. I can remember hearing Ivan Lins’ music played before Pat Metheny concerts. That music got into my blood.” It also got into her voice, a softly expressive instrument made for the cottony cool of bossa nova and the quietest of Tropicalia-inspired jazz. Along with co-writing her own deeply felt material on self-released albums such as Brasil—Sempre no Coração and Entre Amigos, she passed the MPB gene onto her daughter big-time. 

Sandy fondly remembers those Pastiche rehearsals too. “She used to come with me and sit in her car-seat basket, singing,” she says of Natalie. “By the time she got to kindergarten choir, she was a ringer as she could hold harmonies. Her ear has always been really good—as a vocalist and as a trombonist. You have to have a great ear to tune an instrument with a slide … Her vocal phrasing is a plus when it comes to phrasing music on the trombone. People who hear Natalie and I hear similarities in our voices, definitely. I do too. I also think that Natalie has taken it way beyond with her beautiful high register that’s different from the timbre of my voice, to say nothing of having her own style.”

 As for Natalie’s partnership with Faquini … well, even that has a family link. “My mother collaborated with Ian first,” she explains, “when he was a 20-year-old student at the California Jazz Conservatory for one of her duos. Then I collaborated with Ian on one of her projects, and then we kept at it. I owe her a debt for that introduction as well,” she adds with a laugh.

Natalie Cressman (photo: Tomas Faquini)
Natalie Cressman (photo: Tomas Faquini)

Cressman never felt pushed into music by her mom and dad. Instead, she was offered the keys to the kingdom as a life and work option. “My parents helped, but the real motivation came from me,” she says. “It was up to me to carve out whatever life I wanted, rather than sit through the expectation of my parents while finding myself.”

That process of self-location included, in her youth, ballet lessons and musical theater. The latter remains a huge part of her life to this day; she sat in the trombone chair and appears on the original Broadway cast recording of The Cher Show, was part of director Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème on the Great White Way, and plays in the pit orchestra of Hadestown. “The trombone chair has a pretty big role in that show,” she says of the Tony Award-winning hellscape musical. “I love show tunes.”

Cressman has also been a heroine to jam-band fans everywhere since she was 19. That was when she received an invitation from Trey Anastasio to join his solo band. The Phish guitarist had first met her the previous year, just after she’d moved to New York to study jazz at Manhattan School of Music; Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum was a mutual friend. His offer, in Cressman’s words, “busted the door wide open” to other possibilities in improvised music. Since then, she’s played frequently with Anastasio, both in his own group and as a live guest with Phish.

“I had to do a lot of homework to get to the root of [Anastasio’s] music, to feel authentic,” Cressman says. Assignments included imbibing Bruce Fowler’s trombone work with Frank Zappa and feeling out the funk between James Brown and Fred Wesley. “I found my identity within all that new music, then made sure I had my own voice. That crowd—the Grateful Dead, Phish and Trey audience—has a voracious appetite for all sorts of music. That’s exciting because you can see and feel how music can bring people together. That’s a nice thing for humanity, bringing people happiness through music.

“It wasn’t as if I ever turned my back on the roots of those Brazilian records and the salsa bands I sat in with a kid,” she adds. “But once I started playing trombone at a certain level, I took in more about the Great American Songbook, bebop and such, focusing on getting through it all with the sub-language of improvised music.”

At this point, she started putting out her own stuff: 2012’s Unfolding, with the quintet Secret Garden (also featuring trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg and saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown); the caramel-coated jazz of 2014’s Turn the Sea; and 2017’s electro-laced solo EP The Traces (“my first effort away from the jazz training”). Each of these records is solid. Yet Cressman has truly come alive—as a melodist, as a lyricist, and as a brass musician—since 2018, when she began making the cosmopolitan folk-pop of Joni Mitchell, early Paul Simon, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young part of her regular diet. Introspectiveness, literacy, and nuance have played ever larger roles in her recent music.

“The manner in which Joni collaborated with jazz players of her time, to say nothing of her storytelling abilities … I’ve been trying to find someone who excites me as much as her,” Cressman says. “[She] creates amazing, unique pictures with sound. Unforgettable sound, at that. Getting that blend right is something that I try over and over again.”

Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini (photo: Tomas Faquini)
Jazz al fresco with Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini (R). (Photo: Tomas Faquini)

As she came into her own and broadened horizons, what excited Cressman most at the beginning of her life—world music and world languages (even studying French while at a French-American school)—mixed and mingled with her newfound influences. “Even though I had moved away from it for a minute, my life’s deep dive into Portuguese [-language] music only got deeper as time went on,” she says. 

It turned out, not all that surprisingly, that the music Cressman loved had also been crucial to her partner Faquini’s upbringing. Their mutual fondness for American singer/songwriters and Brazilian music defines their albums together (Auburn Whisper and 2019’s Setting Rays of Summer), then pushes them into a wholly original place. That trademark equatorial subtlety of song structure brings out the open-endedness of Cressman’s lyric writing.

“Jazz has amazing harmonic and melodic diversity, but rhythmically, Brazilian music offers something off the beaten path and open … and, as a lyricist, depicting things in a way that’s not so completely tangible, where the listener gets to make their own conclusions about what each song could mean to them, that’s definitely a part of our writing,” Cressman acknowledges. “Pop songs in the present usually spell things out. They say the same thing over and over again. I wanted to find a different way of talking about things that permeate the human experience, making them feel fresh, and that go with our melodies. I never want to overwrite a song. I just want to translate what I’m hearing and feeling into a story, into something that jells.”

Along with the previously discussed “Already There” and Auburn Whisper’s title track (think Charlie Byrd by way of Fairport Convention), Cressman points at the new album’s Hitchcock tribute “Rear Window” as the kind of story—“precise, but a little bit opaque”—that she savors as a writer. “These scenes of loneliness that were so relevant during the pandemic, a longing to go with the purity of the melody … I wanted to include that, tell you something without giving everything away.” 

Ah yes, the pandemic, which brought sadness and loss to many but which made the recording of Auburn Whisper a relaxed experience indeed. Cressman and Faquini got to work with the former’s parents in a home backyard setting, and there was plenty of time to put together dynamic arrangements for multiple trombones and voices. “It was an organic collaboration with no deadline or contract,” Cressman says. “There’s a lot more of my writing on Auburn Whisper. Ian spurred me on to break the concept of the trombone choir throughout the new album. That made me part of the melody-writing process along with Ian, as well as the lyricist. More than our first record together, Auburn Whisper is the sum total of our influences and abilities, and thoroughly collaborative.”

“The Grateful Dead, Phish and Trey [Anastasio] audience has a voracious appetite for all sorts of music. That’s exciting because you can see and feel how music can bring people together.”

From Unfolding to The Traces to Auburn Whisper, Cressman has been taking jazz as an expressive tool and quietly deviating from its traditions. She’s anxious to continue. “I want to explore and see what settles while feeling authentic to who I am at the time,” she says. “Where I am now, I feel as if I’ve stripped away some layers, and am even more of myself than ever. There are so many parallels between who I am as a singer and who I am as a trombonist. But I think that I’m getting to a point, now, where … what makes my approach different is that I’m leaning into myself more. My softer textures. The subtleties of music and word. I used to feel this pressure to be louder, more aggressive. Maybe to fit in with the male energy of my peers at the time. Now I’m older and wiser and I know I can do the softer volumes. That’s what makes me unique. I want to bring that to a place where I can be most heard.”

Cressman is reminded that, while she was coming up, she’d get comments about how she should play trombone in a more delicate, “feminine” fashion. “And that made me so mad to hear that,” she says, laughing. “I just wanted to be accepted as one of the guys. Then, as you mature, you recognize that that is me. I have a different dynamic range than most trombonists that allows me to be more agile. It took growing up in my own skin to realize that my gifts are more subtle. I couldn’t play the acoustic music that I do with Ian if I wasn’t in command of such volume. I’m okay with being different now.”