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.

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.

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.

Adam UnsworthAAJ: What are your favorites of the ensemble tunes and what are the stories behind some of those tunes?

AU: "Excerpt This! is one of my favorites and basically, I just tried to write the hardest thing I could think of to play. I really like "Third Time's the Charm just as far as the structure is concerned. As a composition, I like the feel of it, the melody and how it flows as a composition.

AAJ: It's a really balanced composition.

AU: Yeah, and it peaks with the violin solo and Diane does a really amazing job with the energy in that violin solo. If I had to label one as my favorite, it would be that one. But I like them all. It's hard not to like them when you wrote them, I guess.

AAJ: So what is the meaning of the title "Excerpt This! ?

AU: The title itself is one that's very full of attitude that sort of shows a little disdain for the classical training where you just play excerpts ad nauseam in the hopes of perfection someday. It's not disdain for anyone in particular but just for that methodology that sort of sucks the life out of your creative juices.

I see that all the time with students and I've felt that with myself, too. I felt that the more I practiced and the more I focused on trying to be perfect, the less creativity I had and the less I enjoyed the instrument.

This is a complete break from that for me, which is incredibly refreshing, and so for me to throw that title in there, it's a bit of a challenge to the classical community and to horn players to do something else with their instrument and, even more, check out this CD and try to play it.

Selected Discography

Adam Unsworth, Excerpt This! (Self-published, 2006)

Photo Credit
Jessica Griffin


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