Interview: Natalie Cressman chats with NWMS

Photo by Lauren Desberg

San Francisco trombonist/singer/songwriter Natalie Cressman and Brazilian guitarist/singer/songwriter Ian Faquini bring their duo act to the Royal Room on Saturday, April 13th, touring behind their new duo album Setting Rays of Summer. Ms. Cressman was good enough to take some questions.

NWMS:  You grew up the daughter of two jazz musicians.  Was it simply pre-ordained that you’d follow them into the business?  Did you ever consider other career paths?

Natalie Cressman:  Music was a big part of my upbringing but it was never assumed or expected of me to become a musician. My parents were super supportive but the opposite of pushy: they wanted the desire to study and learn to come from me, so rather than automatically enrolling me in private lessons and music camps, they waited till I voiced the interest in such things, and then supported me and made it possible.

I started playing trombone when I was nine but it wasn’t until halfway through high school that I decided I really wanted to pursue music as a career. Up until then, I also danced ballet in a very rigorous program, training six days a week, so my time was split between music and dance for many years until I chose one over the other.

NWMS:  What led you to pick trombone as your instrument?  Did Roswell Rudd or Jimmy Knepper influence you at all?

Natalie Cressman:  My dad, Jeff Cressman, is a tremendous trombonist, with an incredible tone, rhythmic feel, and range of expression, and hearing him play is really what inspired me to pick up the trombone. My godfather [saxophonist] Peter Apfelbaum introduced me to Roswell Rudd’s playing when I was a teenager and I listened to Jimmy Knepper a lot on the many Mingus recordings he appears on. I remember transcribing a plunger solo of his in my first or second year of high school.

NWMS:  How did you study your instrument, and with whom?  What were your most important lessons learned?

Natalie Cressman:  I’ve had a lot of really great trombone teachers and mentors, starting with my dad, Wayne Wallace, and Marty Weiner on the West Coast, and continuing when I moved to New York for college with Luis Bonilla, Wycliffe Gordon, and Laurie Frink (a trumpet teacher and overall brass “guru”). There are so many lessons from all of them that I draw from to this day, but Laurie in particular was really pivotal in helping me develop endurance and consistency, as the exercises were purely calisthenic, and really helped me develop a routine to help me better execute the more difficult music I play.

Peter Apfelbaum also was instrumental in teaching me about harmony and transcribing when I was just starting out.  Playing with his band the NY Hieroglyphics Ensemble at Monterey when I was 15 was a truly pivotal moment in learning about polyrhythms and more hybridized forms of jazz and improvisation. I also took some lessons with Bay Area saxophonist Dann Zinn, who really helped me with my speed and coordination on the instrument, as I practiced Charlie Parker tunes and bebop scales and language, and this material that wasn’t at all designed for trombone.

NWMS:  Who were your primary influences on trombone and/or any other instrument?  Why and how?

Natalie Cressman:  My first influence is certainly my dad, and his tone, rhythmic dexterity, and keen ability to play in many styles were some of the biggest influences on me. Other trombonists who I really consider to be big influences are J.J. Johnson and Frank Rosolino. By listening to their records and transcribing many of their solos I feel that they’ve had a big impact on how I play. I learned about Melba Liston later on and I consider her a big hero of mine, as she was such an accomplished trombonist, composer, and arranger, during a time where there were hardly any women in jazz.

As a vocalist, two of my major influences are Sarah Vaughan and Joni Mitchell. Joni’s work as a songwriter and lyricist was a big part of what led me to singing and writing vocal tunes while I was in college. And her genre-bending compositional style also made a big impression on me, as she incorporates jazz harmony and improvisation in the singer-songwriter realm.

NWMS:  What are your best, worst, and oddest stories from touring?

Natalie Cressman:  There are many tour stories I could recount, it’s hard to pick. One of the best moments from the road was on my first tour with Trey Anastasio. When we played New Haven, Connecticut, my 92-year-old great-grandmother came to the show. She had likely never been to a concert like it before, and Trey gave her a shoutout onstage and she kept getting lots of attention from the audience in attendance, everyone being very sweet to her, which she loved. It was such a great experience and a hilarious collision of two very different worlds.

One of the worst was when I had this quasi-stalker. The first weird thing that happened was that he sent my publicist a bra top that he had hand-crocheted for me. During this brief exchange he also mentioned to my publicist that he was on enough painkillers to kill an elephant, asked my bra size, and incessantly asked for me to wear the top at a Trey show or post about it on social media. It was the size of a napkin, there was no way I was even going to try it on, not to mention wearing it out in public.

Then we were on tour a few months later, playing the city where he lived, and we had driven on the tour bus all night and checked into the hotel in the early morning. He tweeted at James Casey, my fellow bandmate, asking if he had walked into the hotel we were staying. So it became clear that this guy had been waiting outside the hotel to see us arrive. I was so creeped out by it that I didn’t leave my hotel the whole day.

One of the oddest ones was after a Trey Anastasio Band show when a group of guys asked for a picture by the tour bus. I happily obliged–they had mentioned it was one of their birthdays–and once the photo was taken, the guy on my right picked me up and started carrying me away from the tour bus. It was so strange and awkward, and a little scary. I protested immediately and he put me down, he just thought it was funny, and they were all drunk, but it’s definitely made me a bit more guarded. Now, after the show, I stick with another band member when the audience members come up for a photo or to chat with me, just in case.

NWMS:  How did you meet Mr. Faquini?  How did you decide to start playing together?

Natalie Cressman:  I met Ian through my mother, Sandy Cressman, who is great vocalist based in San Francisco who specializes in Brazilian music. She had collaborated with Ian on her most recent record, and I wrote a horn arrangement for one of their songs. A couple years later, we spent more extended time together at California Brazil Camp, where he is on the faculty. My mom was teaching and translating for some of the Brazilian artists who come to teach and don’t speak English: she had been telling me about the camp for years and invited me to come with her.

I played with Ian in a class taught by the great composer Guinga, who is one of Ian’s big mentors. The experience of going to the camp really re-ignited my interest in Brazilian music and we started playing music and collaborating on original music over the following year, and eventually started gigging together as a duo.

NWMS:  How did you go about developing songs with Mr. Faquini?  How does that process differ from your normal process?

Natalie Cressman:  It’s different than my typical process because Ian usually has sent me a more-or-less finished melody/harmony, and then I set words to his music. With my previous projects, I am composing and writing the words together, often at the same time, so with Ian’s compositions it feels more like I am trying to interpret the music with words, rather than create something from scratch. I pay attention to the feeling and sensation of the song and try to complement the phrasing of the melody with words that sound natural.

It can be a challenge to be poetic without obscuring the beauty of the music. I always want the words to flow and have the vowels of the words really fit sonically, not try to cram in too much or be too wordy. Recently we’ve started messing around with writing together in the same room, where I can have some input about melody and harmony as he writes.

NWMS:  Have you played Seattle before?  If so, where, when, and your thoughts on our city?

Natalie Cressman:  Yes, I’ve played in Seattle a few times! I’ve played at Tula’s Jazz Club twice: once with my band, and once with guitarist Mike Bono. And I’ve played Showbox SoDo with Trey Anastasio. I think it’s a beautiful city: I love the lakes and the topography, and am a huge seafood fan so I enjoy the great restaurants and Pike Place Market. I’m really looking forward to spending some time there this week.

NWMS:  What’s in the future for you, after this tour?

Natalie Cressman:  After this tour, I’m returning to NYC to play with Trey Anastasio for a handful of shows, including a special one at Tribeca Film Festival, and will be spending the summer performing at some festivals with his band and as a special guest with other bands.

I’ll also be traveling to Brazil, where Ian and I will hopefully play a few shows, then in September we’ll be playing the Monterey Jazz Festival, and right after we’ll travel to Lisbon for a 10-day music festival called Innovated Giving Experiment. We’re hoping to be able to do some more touring in Europe after the festival as well!

Natalie Cressman and Brazilian guitarist/singer/songwriter Ian Faquini will be performing at the Royal Room on Saturday, April 13. Click HERE for ticket information. 

Andrew Hamlin

Andrew Hamlin likes to photograph shoes and write about dog shit. He was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, where he resides today. He attended the Evergreen State College, where he wrote and edited arts coverage for the Cooper Point Journal. He is the film critic for the Northwest Asian Weekly, and he’s published arts coverage and criticism in the San Diego Reader, Village Voice, Seattle Times, Seattle Weekly, Goldmine, and other publications. He misses Helen Wiggin. Hamlin’s website is

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