Last year, Nate Wooley stood alone on the stage of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and placed a thin piece of sheet metal against the bell of his trumpet. A soft sound slowly escaped from his horn, with the vibrating metal gradually creating a second tone. During his solo set, and later in duets with saxophonist Ken Vandermark, Wooley performed music that conjures descriptors like “extended technique” or “noise” (in the pejorative and non-pejorative senses) and, for some, would not be considered jazz. Not that Wooley, who leads and participates in various ensembles in addition to the duo, would care.
Accordingly, the recent arrival of (Dance To) The Early Music (Clean Feed) comes as quite a surprise. The “early music” in this case refers to compositions by Wynton Marsalis that appeared on his self-titled debut, Black Codes (From the Underground) and J Mood. Those albums, all released in the 1980s, ushered in and defined a neo-conservative perspective on jazz, which would seem to be the antithesis of Wooley’s aesthetic. One year after the prankish avant-garde quartet Mostly Other People Do the Killing raised hackles with their note-for-note recreation of Kind of Blue, Wooley might appear to be going for irony or making a statement. But in a phone conversation from his New York home, it’s clear that this is no joke.
The son of a saxophonist, Wooley was born in 1974 and grew up in a small Oregon town about 60 miles outside Portland, playing big-band jazz and listening religiously to Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Bunny Berigan and Harry James. One day, his dad gave him a cassette of Black Codes. “Because of the music I had been listening to up to that point, that was the most radical thing I had ever heard,” he says. “The precision that Wynton had-it wasn’t flashy. It felt like that music was barely contained. It was about to explode. I got really excited about it in the same way that I hear friends of mine talk about hearing punk rock for the first time.”
Eventually Wooley took a path that veered away from Marsalis. He discovered players like trumpeter Booker Little on Eric Dolphy albums, which liberated his perspective even further. But a few years ago, he found new copies of those three early Marsalis albums and listened to them on a flight from New York to Portland. The same energy he heard and felt as a 12-year-old returned as he rediscovered them. By the time he landed, Wooley had sketched out ideas for interpretations by his quintet with Josh Sinton (bass clarinet), Matt Moran (vibraphone), Eivind Opsvik (bass) and Harris Eisenstadt (drums).
(Dance To) The Early Music consists of six Marsalis compositions, along with two Wooley originals and one composition he co-wrote with Opsvik. From the beginning, the trumpeter was determined to bring his quintet’s own perspective to the music without completely reimagining it. “There shouldn’t be anything on there that sounds like Wynton Marsalis because I can’t do Wynton Marsalis. Why would I try to do that? He’s out there doing it every single day,” Wooley says. The group’s instrumentation and sense of urgency can recall Eric Dolphy’s landmark Out to Lunch!, adding yet another wrinkle to the project.
Wooley understands that hearing an experimental performer interpret Young Lions-era jazz might put some listeners on the defense, but it shouldn’t. As proof he stresses that the music, whether it’s Marsalis or Evan Parker, all comes from the same lineage. “The tree comes up from the roots and goes into all these different branches,” he says. “We’re just looking at this from a different branch.”
It’s easy to forget, Wooley adds, that people are often more complex than can be discerned from one piece of music, or an interview. “We tend to flatten everybody’s experience,” he says. “For example: ‘Wynton Marsalis is a jazz revisionist or historical jazz player that’s only interested in Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.’ I don’t think that’s any more true than [the idea that] I’m a guy that’s only interested in making the trumpet sound weird. That doesn’t make any sense. Everybody’s much more complex.
“In the liner notes I say this isn’t a political album, but in a way, if there is politics to it, that’s it: Every single human being has all these layers of things that they’re interested in.”