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Adam Unsworth: Defying Convention

By Published: August 8, 2006
AAJ: About the horn itself—when I wrote about Excerpt This! I referred to the nature of the horn as unwieldy in terms of intonation. When I looked on your website, I saw that you had written something similar. What does the nature of the instrument dictate in writing material and your approach to improvisation that might be different for other instruments?

AU: The horn is not an instrument easy to get around technically. At least it's less common for someone to be technically as virtuosic as a saxophonist or a trumpet player. It's a longer instrument, it has more tubing to blow through and it's not generally an instrument that's just whipped around on. In that way, it hasn't lent itself to jazz.

On the other hand, for something like a ballad or a singing kind of thing, it works great. The typical horn line in an orchestra or classical ensemble plays very flowing, singing lines. For ballads, it's really nice, maybe a little tighter than a trombone. It doesn't have the spectrum of sound the trombone has, but it sings as well. I think the unwieldiness comes from a technical aspect—getting around the instrument.

AAJ: You seem to have done so admirably.

AU: I'm a little bit uncommon, but that's what comes easily to me. I have to sit down and work on the other classical stuff like playing whole notes and long tones. I have to work on that, but the technical side comes easily, so that's one reason I lean towards jazz.

AAJ: There's not a huge canon of solo pieces for the horn that I'm aware of, and I'm wondering what appeals to you about that way of playing. The ensemble is unique enough, but you've sprinkled the album with these solo pieces that are kind of wild.

AU: I do a lot of teaching and a lot of playing in the classical idiom, so I've given a lot of classical recitals, but I've always had this jazz interest. Since I didn't have my own group and I wasn't out there playing a lot of gigs, I liked to put pieces like the solo pieces on my record into these recitals kind of as a diversion. So I'd play the first half of a recital with piano and then come out in the second half and do one of these crazy, jazz- oriented solo horn pieces.

Over the years, I've fond some that are really fun and work well. Audiences really like them and they're a lot of fun for me to play. I've developed a couple of these things over the years. The one that I wrote, "Halfway There, I wrote a couple of years back for a recital at Carnegie Hall. I just needed another piece, so I wrote myself one.

"Bluefire Crown II, the one Les Thimmig wrote, is sort of a written improvisation. He wrote out this long, extended improvisation in composition form. And then I had Dana Wilson, someone I've always admired the way he writes for the horn, write me one. Dana's a jazz pianist by trade and I just thought, "Hey, this guy could probably write a pretty cool solo horn piece, too. That's my favorite thing to do in the classical idiom and probably my greatest strength—playing unaccompanied pieces. Then I interspersed those with my own jazz ensemble tunes to see if I could make it work as sort of a compilation.

AAJ: I find it interesting that you have two people who aren't horn players writing solo pieces for you. When you write them, you know what the horn does and what you can do. Does having other people writing them for you create a different vibe?

Adam UnsworthAU: Yeah. Both these guys understand the horn very well and, in collaborating with Dana, he really let me have a lot of say in technical aspects of it and what was difficult. We worked together a lot to come up with the eventual product. They're both professional composers with a lot of compositions to their credit. They understand the instrument. That's part of their gig.

AAJ: Did they make you work for it by writing challenging pieces?

AU: Well, that's what I wanted. I told Dana that, and he said, "If I write you what you want, nobody else will be able to play it. And I said, "Well, that's alright by me if it's alright by you! [laughter] I wanted them to write something to really challenge me. I don't know if that's true, that no one else will attempt to play that piece, but what he ended up with I think is very effective.

AAJ: How do the solo pieces go over in classical recitals as well as jazz performances?

AU: I think they work in both. I've thrown them into to a couple of my last jazz gigs. We might take a set break and I'd just come out and play one of them. It kind of knocks people's socks off in some ways. They've never heard one person stand up and go for that long, for ten minutes non-stop on an instrument, constantly improvising and blowing changes and everything else. It's just not something they're used to hearing, so I think people are maybe taken aback but it usually ends up going over well and they appreciate what happened.

The same thing with classical recitals. It's just not something people are used to hearing. It makes an impression, I would say. Just two nights ago, I played "Halfway There in Maine and people went nuts. It's just the kind of thing that people aren't expecting that makes an impression on them and they end up finding it enjoyable. For me, it's very gratifying.

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