The jazz bins are dotted with solo saxophone recordings and solo piano recordings, but solo trumpet recordings are rare birds indeed.
Dave Ballou added to that exclusive species with his new album, "Solo Trumpet," released by elite jazz label Clean Feed last month. The affable trumpeter came to Baltimore in 2004 when he joined the jazz faculty at Towson University. He has since kept busy recording and concertizing, here and beyond, bringing his adroit sound to contexts as varied as drummer John Hollenbeck's ambitious big band and a regular Tuesday night trio gig at Bertha's in Fells Point. Ballou took City Paper's call recently to discuss "Solo Trumpet," the new wave of big bands, and musical frustration. This is an edited and condensed account of that conversation. (Lee Gardner)
City Paper: There have been a number of well-known solo saxophone recordings, but I couldn't think of any other solo trumpet recordings off the top of my head. What made you want to do this?
Dave Ballou: Playing solo seems to be the most challenging situation to be in. You're by yourself, you don't have any accompaniment to feed off of. I'm always looking to try to conquer these challenges and improve along the way, so it's always been something to work toward. Inspiration came from hearing Sonny Rollins play 'Body and Soul' solo on that ["Sonny Rollins and the Big Brass"] record, Anthony Braxton's "For Alto," and, of course, Roscoe Mitchell's solo work. [Note: The aforementioned are all saxophonists.] Wadada Leo Smith has a bunch of solo trumpet material out. And then the trumpet players Nate Wooley and Peter Evans are people who have played solo trumpet and really taken it in different directions.
CP: Do you have any favorite solo trumpet recordings?
DB: Wadada's records I really like. Peter Evans' work has really inspired me, because he's really taken the trumpet in some ways I was kind of not sure about. His stamina as a trumpet player is phenomenal, and he's able to really sustain improvisations and these different sounds for a long time. There's a bunch of solo trumpet music, classical pieces, that are intriguing to practice and study. There's an Elliott Carter solo clarinet piece I've studied called 'Gra.' And, of course, the Bach solo violin partitas. Those are things that I practice. too.
CP: Is there something about the trumpet, or trumpet players, that make solo recordings more unlikely?
DB: Well, it's a difficult instrument to play. Primarily that. It's a piece of metal on your face, and the endurance factor is pretty significant. When you come down to it, it is sort of a limited instrument as far as range goes. People can play as high as they want, but typically the real working sound range of the trumpet is about two and a half octaves. It's primarily just that it's kind of a physically unforgiving instrument, so to do a solo record was a real challenge, because I had to work toward that, and make sure that there was music, too.
CP: The first piece on the album features fairly approachable, relatable melodic material, but from there the other pieces cover a lot of ground in terms of sound, style, approach. How did you tackle the recording process?
DB: I've been practicing with this in mind for a while, and one of my practices is to practice improvisations. One of the ways that I think of improvisation is as a spontaneous composition. These pieces, except for two of them, they were all improvised. [Note: Two pieces were improvised based on existing material.] That first piece is ideas as they unfold, but I called it 'Tightly' because they're all pretty closely related. But I didn't think of all this beforehand. I tried to just be in the moment and let the pieces happen, but that does come from things like studying Schoenberg and counterpoint and developing variations. But I'm trying to let what I've studied be an intuitive . . . like a conversation. A conversation with myself, I guess.
CP: Bill Evans spent part of his career recording what he called "conversations with myself."
DB: Well, he had a very compositional approach to improvisation. The only real difference between composition and improvisation is the time span. In composition, you have all the time you want to make 15 seconds of music. In improvisation, you have 15 seconds. That's a famous quote from Steve Lacy that I use a lot, and it's true.
CP: 'Wooley Warmth' is dedicated to fellow trumpeter Nate Wooley, who is known in part for extended techniques on the instrument. Do you think that there's still room to explore in terms of unconventional sounds?
DB: When I hear these guys like Herb Robertson and Nate Wooley and Peter [Evans], you get the idea that the trumpet is really just a sound generator as well as a traditional-sounding instrument. The more I've explored these [unconventional] aspects of the instrument, they're based on the construction of the instrument. It's nothing like a piano, where it's an equal-tempered instrument. It's got a whole bunch of wonky, weird things in it. I mean, basically it's seven bugles—with the valves you have seven different positions. You think you know what it sounds like, and you think you've come to the point where, what else could there be, and somebody comes up with something else.
CP: You play in John Hollenbeck's band, and some other large ensembles. It seems like bands like Hollenbeck's and Darcy Argue's are leading something of a big-band comeback in recent years. Do you agree?
DB: To be honest, I don't think it ever really left. Before I was teaching at Towson, I was living and working in New York, and you were always playing in big bands. They weren't necessarily touring or recording, but that's how you'd meet people. What's different now is that there are a bunch of young composers that are writing for large ensembles, and they're living in areas where people will get together and play their music. There certainly hasn't been any rise in funding for these things, so that's not it. I think it's just the energy of these young people who are writing for these ensembles, and their peers who are playing with them. Everybody kind of knows the deal, that it's not a money-making thing, but they want to play in these ensembles. I've been playing with big bands since I could read [music]. But I've gotta say, I really prefer playing in bands like John Hollenbeck's band, and [Peabody Institute faculty member] Mike Formanek actually has a big-band record coming out on ECM soon. Those kind of bands, they're not like the shout-section/solo bands [of the dance-band era]. They're like these chamber-jazz orchestras, and it's challenging and really rewarding.
CP: Listening to "Solo Trumpet" with all its variety made me wonder, what's still hard for you to do on your instrument? What challenges still frustrate you?
DB: To be honest, there isn't a lot that doesn't frustrate me. The trumpet, day to day, keeps you going. It's hard enough to play the instrument in a refined way and be skillful with it, so I'm constantly struggling with that. I'm constantly trying to be a better musician as far as having awareness of things on a structural level, but aurally, being able to hear music in a deep way. It's never-ending. I don't say it's frustrating. It's actually kind of the fun of it, really. That's one of the things I tell the students. You've always got something to do. You'll never be bored.
Dave Ballou performs with the Mike Kuhl Trio every Tuesday at Bertha's. He performs with Michael Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus Jan. 22, 2016, at the Creative Alliance.