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Adam Unsworth: Defying Convention

By Published: August 8, 2006
AAJ: Despite the past century of music, in many people's minds, there are still rigid barriers between genres which isn't necessarily the case. What are you seeing in your students? Are you finding that younger musicians are less concerned with matters of genre and that they have backgrounds and interests in different types of music that they bring to their playing?

AU: Unfortunately, it's not really happening. I think they have a wide variety of interests in what they're listening to, but I think as far as playing the horn, most of them are pretty steeped in the classical tradition and sort of know one way to play. There's so much that's different about playing the horn in jazz in the way you approach the instrument, what the sound is like and how you articulate it. Most of them have never encountered that, never done it and aren't even sure how to start.

I encourage them to a point to do that, but I can't expect them all to develop the kind of facility it takes to really do it well. But I do encourage them to listen and we might do a little bit of improvisation here and there. Because I do think that the jazz has helped my classical playing a lot in my ability to listen and sing through the instrument. I don't think that the students come with that much of an interest in doing a variety of things on their instrument. They're pretty intense and they're going after that classical horn job most of the time.

AAJ: So you're in a position where you've established yourself in the classical world and maybe that allows you to explore other things that have been tugging at you over the years?

AU: Definitely. We were talking yesterday at a forum discussion at camp about "What is success? I really feel that despite the fact that I'm just getting started with the jazz thing and my first CD that I've finally found my way. Ten years ago, if someone had said, "You're going to be in the Philadelphia Orchestra, I would have thought that that was amazing and that I'd finally made it.

Adam Unsworth
Top Row (l:r) Tony Miceli, Les Thimmmig Botom Row (l:r) Cornell Rochester, Ranaan Meyer, Adam Unsworth, Diane Monroe

Well, I got in the Philadelphia Orchestra and I sat there and thought, "Is this it? This is what I worked so hard for? This is not the musical satisfaction I thought I was going to have. It feels to me like when I found this jazz and having my own tunes performed by these incredible musicians that I've found what I want to do. I found what will make me feel satisfied and successful. So I'm really happy about that.

AAJ: Your work may be considered a breakthrough to a lot of people. You've got a great band, and I think that one of the things that comes across on the CD is how well you play together as an ensemble. Are you going to try and keep this group together?

AU: I sure hope so. I've been writing and a probably have enough material to do another CD. It's just finding the backing and getting everything set to start recording again and I'd love to use the same troupe. We've been playing off and on through the spring—more off than on.

With my job, we play about 160 concerts a year, so it's not like I have a ton of nights off most of the time to play jazz gigs. But it's something we're working on and I'd love to keep playing with the same people. They've certainly embraced my music and brought so much to it—so much of their energy and creativity, so it would be fun to continue.

AAJ: Talk to me about the individual members of the group and what they brought to the music.

AU: OK. I'll start with Les Thimmig, my former composition teacher when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He taught me a lot about jazz composition and arranging. Les is just a multi-faceted woodwind talent—a very gifted player who takes any of the saxophones, any of the flutes and clarinets and just improvises and plays incredibly well in both the classical and jazz idioms.

The reason that I really wanted Les was that I knew that I was interested in alto flute and bass clarinet and I knew that he could blow those really well. What I like the most about Les on the album is that since he's a fine composer and has spent most of his life composing, I hear a lot of his compositions in his improvisation. Just the way he sets things up and strings things together I find very attractive.

Diane Monroe, the violinist, she's a real talent and I love the energy she brought to the band.

AAJ: I think you found a real kindred spirit in Diane. She's got some wild stuff on that record. She's a pretty rancorous player, kind of like you.

AU: Yeah, I think that you're right about that. You set Diane in a direction and she really takes it in a creative way does things that make you smile. She has such a classical background and she took on jazz later on and brings a unique approach to it with a different voice. And she wasn't trained in the jazz language like many people were and I really wasn't, either. I just sort of found my own voice and she's done the same thing.

Cornell Rochester, the drummer, I think is an incredibly creative and interesting drummer. I really wasn't looking for a straight-ahead swing guy for this music. I wanted something with a little bit more edge. He's done a lot of different things. The first time I heard Cornell play was with Uri Caine and the interest and variety of what he would throw into Uri's compositions I thought was amazing and I thought he'd be really fun to work with and who would work well in this group and it turned out great.

I love hearing all the outtakes from my album because Cornell is so different on all of them. The producer, John Vanore, mentioned that to me, too. While he was doing all the editing, he said he had a love/hate relationship with Cornell. He said, "I love the way he plays, but I hate editing it because he's so different all the time. Such a creative guy.

Ranaan Meyer, the bassist, is a Curtis graduate who's classically trained, but also did a lot of studying jazz in his youth and I really got him for his energy and creativity. He's another crossover guy with a lot of talent. I love his solo in "Excerpt This! He just sort of takes it out.

Tony Miceli, the Philadelphia vibes player, has done a lot of work in jazz, but also plays in a rock band. He's sort of the glue that keeps everything together, I think. I love the way he plays, so I'm happy to have him there, too.

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