Adam Unsworth: Defying Convention

Ken Kase By

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The title, "Excerpt This!" is one that
Adam UnsworthWith his debut CD, Excerpt This! (Self-Published, 2006). French hornist Adam Unsworth has shown himself to be unafraid of the conventional boundaries that exist between the jazz and classical worlds. A member of the Philadelphia Orchestra and faculty member at Temple University, his first recorded foray into jazz composition and performance brings a fresh voice to jazz that oozes technical brilliance with a serious attitude.

His sextet contains musicians also familiar with going against prescribed standards and finding new ways to express themselves through their virtuosity and vision. Unsworth's music provides a perfect setting for a kind of iconoclasm and disregard for tradition that were once arguably more common in jazz. His enthusiasm for creating something new is palpable, both through his music and his words.

Adam Unsworth spoke to me while sitting beneath a tree during a break from teaching at an instructional camp for young musicians in Bar Harbor, Maine. With a decidedly understated brashness and confidence, he imparted to me his philosophical approach to music making, talked about the technical challenge of his chosen instrument and expressed his sincere desire to create something new with a group of musicians he admires and respects.

All About Jazz: I must admit that when I first heard your CD, I didn't know what to expect and I was surprised at how good it was. You've made a very strong debut album with Excerpt This!

Adam Unsworth: That's what I'm trying to go for—to make a big splash, a big statement right up front. A lot of it has to do with just playing an instrument that's not thought of as a typical jazz instrument and I just wanted to prove that this instrument can be played effectively in this idiom, even by someone who makes his living by playing classical music all the time.

AAJ: Did you have any expectations about how the record would be received by both jazz and classical people?

AU: I had my expectations and they've proven to be wrong.

AAJ: How so?

AU: I thought that a lot of the horn players would eat this stuff up— especially college horn players. I thought they'd eat it up because it was really technical and all over the horn.

So far—and we're still in the very early stages—classical horn players have shown sort of a mild interest, but jazz people, at least the ones that I've heard from, have received it very positively and seem very open to something new—my writing especially. I've gotten a lot of good comments about the tunes themselves, which to me, is very positive—that the jazz people would hear this stuff and think it was something unique and exciting for them, which is great. I wasn't sure what to expect from the jazz community, but I'm very happy about that. I'm starting to think that horn players are a little more stodgy.

AAJ: Is it "The horn or "The French horn ? How do you want to refer to it here?

AU: Let's call it the horn.

AAJ: Is the term "French horn no longer in common parlance?

AU: It's a little passé. Maybe in jazz terms we should call it French horn because in jazz, they just refer to any instrument as the French horn.

AAJ: So you had an idea that you were going to shake things up and you got some really great musicians and material together. The ensemble itself is a unique combination of sounds. You didn't go for a typical rhythm section or frontline. Having a horn out front was very atypical, and you pushed that even further out by having a violinist and a multi-reedist. Did you hear that lineup in your head when you started the project or did things take shape on their own as you were writing and rehearsing the material?

AU: I heard that sound at the beginning. I always liked the sound of jazz violin and also jazz bass clarinet and the concept of having the violin being the high instrument, the horn in the middle and the bass clarinet on the bottom. It was very appealing to me. The idea of having these three instruments typically thought of as classical instruments was also very appealing to me be cause I thought I would make a new sound, a new texture in jazz.

The horn has been played in jazz before—this certainly isn't the first time. And it's been put in a typical jazz quartet with a tenor saxophone and I didn't want to do that again. I wanted to have a different frontline. I'm also very attracted to the vibraphone sound and the way it blends with the horn, so I wanted the vibraphone in the rhythm section.

A lot of my musicians are crossover guys. They tend to relate to my music and how it's written. They read well and relate to where I'm coming from with the classical background as well as jazz. Pretty much everyone in the band has done a lot of different things, so they're not just jazzers.

AAJ: So you were able to find musicians who were equally steeped in the crossover thing.

AU: A couple of my musicians went to Curtis and did the classical things and a couple of them are more rock musicians. The vibraphonist [Tony Miceli] and the drummer [Cornell Rochester] play a lot of rock as well as jazz.

The woodwind player [Les Thimmig} can play anything. He's one of the most intelligent musicians I've ever come across. Anything you throw out in front of him, he just eats it up. Those are the kinds of musicians I was looking for and I was very fortunate to find them all and have them agree to participate in the project.


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