What’s on Your Playlist: Natalie Cressman

September 21, 2012

By the time she graduated from high school, trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman had already performed alongside luminaries such as Miguel Zenon, Joe Lovano, Ambrose Akinmusire, Eric Harland, Josh Roseman, and Carlos Santana.

Since moving from her native San Francisco to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, Cressman has delved heavily into the world of composition, in addition to performing widely throughout the city with bands including Nicolas Payton’s Television Symphony Orchestra and Peter Apfelbaum and the New York Hieroglyphics Ensemble. In 2010, Phish’s Trey Anastasio invited Cressman to be part of his seven-piece rock band, TAB, with which she’s been playing sold–out shows in major venues. In May of 2012, she was a featured soloist at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in Wycliffe Gordon’s Jazz A La Carte. Sharing the stage with the likes of Savion Glover and Maurice Hines, Cressman was dubbed “the future of jazz” by Gordon, her mentor and host of the evening. On top of all that, she’s formed her own band, Natalie Cressman and Secret Garden.

Unfolding, her debut CD as a leader, captures the 20-year-old’s rapidly blossoming sensibility, a sound shaped by her love of Cuban, Brazilian and West African music, indie rock, funk, and the post–bop continuum.

1. Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown – Sarah Vaughan & Clifford Brown

Sarah Vaughan was one of the first great jazz singers I truly fell in love with, and this album is one of my favorites. When I was little, I sang along with “Lullaby of Birdland” on repeat, trying to mimic her incredible phrasing and attempting to emulate her rich, dark tone. Her finesse in her improvising was also something that particularly inspired me on this album. Adding the elegant voice of Clifford Brown on trumpet makes this one of my favorite Sarah albums. Another one of my favorite tracks is the obscure and heart-wrenching ballad, “Jim.”

2.  Free For All – Frank Rosolino

Frank Rosolino is one of my all-time favorite trombonists, and I literally wore out this CD with repeated listening in high school. Frank’s vibrant, effervescent voice really comes through on this 1958 release, which also features tenor saxophonist Harold Land and Victor Feldman on piano. His rendition of “Stardust” taught me volumes about how to interpret ballads, and his rhythmic pocket on “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” was so captivating that I transcribed it and used to play along with him over and over.

3.   Turbulent Indigo – Joni Mitchell

It was incredibly hard to pick just one of Joni’s albums to put on my playlist because there are so many that I feel make up a significant part of my musical DNA. She is possibly one of my biggest influences as a vocalist and songwriter. But it’s Wayne Shorter’s interaction with Joni’s lyrics that really struck me about this album. On “Sunny Sunday,” Shorter’s interjections are literally evoking the words of the song. His sensitivity and unbelievable depth, demonstrated here in such a unique musical setting, makes him stand out to me as one of my favorite musical minds.

4.   III – Walter Smith III

This album contains some of my favorite modern jazz musicians/composers. I was first exposed to Walter Smith III through Ambrose Akinmusire’s release, Prelude to Cora (another one of my favorites), and this album features Ambrose along with Jason Moran, Joe Sanders, Eric Harland, and Logan Richardson, one of my favorite modern alto players in NYC. Every single musician on this release is stellar, and they deftly bring out the best qualities in each other’s playing. I love the lyrical nature of some songs, the subtlety of “Aubade” contrasting with the more brazen “Highschoolish” and “Himorme.”

5.   GroundUp – Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy has been together for a while and they’ve been, in my opinion, largely underappreciated up until this most recent release. I am consistently impressed by their ability to make even the most complex, instrumental music danceable and appealing to non-jazz listeners. Their incorporation of more popular music styles and grooves with jazz is something that I do with my band, and bringing jazz to a broader audience is something that I care about as well. If you haven’t seen a live Snarky Puppy show, I strongly urge you to check them out. They are an incredible band.

6.   Weightless – Becca Stevens

This album is certainly one that has changed the way I write. She has a unique compositional voice, and her soft-spoken, earnest delivery really resonated with me. She writes beautiful lyrics and, coupled with her song’s great harmonic content and detailed textures, I feel there is a great balance of honest simplicity along with musical complexity and nuance. I keep coming back to this album from time to time, which is why I attest to her greatness as a composer/vocalist/bandleader.

7.   How Bright A Shadow! – In One Wind

I was first introduced to the group through my friend Steven Lugerner, who plays various woodwinds on How Bright A Shadow! It skillfully synthesizes so many different genres that the result is uniquely beautiful music. I love their graceful melodies and three-part harmony, but the contrasts on the album in terms of texture, groove, form, and harmony, are particularly brilliant. They are one of my favorite young bands, definitely a group of musicians to watch.

8.  Signs of Life – Peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble

I remember going to see Peter Apfelbaum and the Hieroglyphics live and spending the entire set with butterflies in my stomach. Something about the profoundness of his melodies and the deeply grounded African rhythms was so exciting. I remember leaving the concert and thinking, “I want to spend my life playing music like that.” Since moving to NYC, I have joined the NY Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and it is one of my favorite groups to play with. Peter has acted as a great musical mentor to me over the years, and each time I play with him I’m struck by how soulful he is.

9.   Personalities – Fabian Almazan

Fabian is one of my favorite pianists. I first heard him when attending a performance of Terence Blanchard’s band, but I love his solo debut for its graceful lyricism. I love how he meshes his Cuban background with jazz and classical music. This release is definitely on the cutting edge of where creative music is going. His sound of a piano trio plus a string quartet is great: it gives such fullness to his pieces. The rhythm section of Fabian, Henry Cole and Linda Oh is a serious combination of some really inspiring players who have gained recognition for their unique voices in jazz today.

10. In Pursuit – Donny McCaslin

I’m a huge fan of Donny McCaslin: he is one of my favorite tenor players today. I love this album particularly because of its incorporation of Afro–Caribbean rhythms within the aesthetic of modern jazz. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my first professional gigs consisted largely of salsa, Latin jazz, and Brazilian music, so this album really spoke to me and encouraged me to let those influences seep into my own writing.

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