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Chad McCullough: Playing to the Gig


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Chad McCulloughSeattle trumpeter Chad McCullough has been working hard to garner a reputation in his hometown and beyond as a versatile, creative musician. McCullough has performed with a wide range of artists, including Jay Thomas, Claudio Roditi, Marc Seales, Thomas Marriott, Ingrid Jensen and Bob Florence. He's toured extensively with the Glenn Miller Orchestra in the jazz trumpet chair, and also as the band's pianist.

Since earning a master's degree in music from the University of Washington in 2005, McCullough has been busy paying his dues as an in-demand trumpeter/composer on the fervent Seattle music scene, as well as working on day-to-day operations for Origin Records with musicians and label owners John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen.

McCullough's debut recording, Dark Wood, Dark Water (Origin Records, 2009), taken from the title of a poem by American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), is a strong debut, emphasizing the 27-year-old trumpeter's prowess as an improviser who demonstrates an understanding of the rich lineage of jazz trumpet.

The disc also showcases clearly defined compositions, arranged for sextet and custom-fit to the individual strengths of what McCullough calls his "Dream Team" of musicians: alto saxophonist Mark Taylor, tenor saxophonist Geof Bradfield, pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Bishop.

All About Jazz: Each of the nine tracks on Dark Wood, Dark Water has a distinct character. There are no two pieces that sound alike.

Chad McCullough: I've been working on a lot of those tunes, in some form or another, for awhile. The material for the recording has developed over time. Also, I knew I was going to have Mark, Geof, Bill, Jeff and John on the record and I wanted to write specifically for them so I could highlight them individually and as an ensemble. It wasn't really a conscious decision of having one tune in 7/4, one with a Latin feel, etc. It was more about wanting to have a tune that Jeff would sound really good on, or one that I could show to John and he would be able to instantly understand where I'm coming from.

AAJ: Your arrangements do seem to cater to an ensemble sound. In that regard, the disc sounds more like a band effort rather than a trumpet player's solo record.

Chad McCulloughCM: Right. You know these guys are all my heroes. I think the first one I was introduced to was Mark Taylor. I didn't even know what jazz was, but I remember hearing him play when I was still a freshman in high school and he was probably in college. Hearing him play for the first time was an awesome experience.

I have the same kind of connection with all of these guys, growing up and listening to them peripherally. Geof Bradfield is another example. He was a big mentor to me when I was in college.

So, this whole recording project has been incredible, getting the chance to work with these guys and write music for them. I couldn't have asked for a better situation to record my first album.

AAJ: Geof Bradfield stands out as being the only musician on the disc who isn't from Seattle.

CM: Yeah, Geof is from Chicago. His wife is an art history professor and for a while he was living in Pullman, Idaho, where I was going to college. He showed up at one of my gigs one day and I said, "Wow, who is this guy?" We became really good friends and for a while he was one of my teachers. Probably the hardest teacher I've ever studied with. He put out a record on Origin [Urban Nomad (2008)], so that's how we got back in touch and started talking about things. When it came time to make this record the timing was right to fly him out to Seattle.

AAJ: The only cover on the disc is your arrangement of John Lennon and Paul McCartney's "Blackbird." You completely rework the tune while maintaining the essence of the melody.

CM: That's a tune I've always loved. I remember driving around in my car with that tune on repeat for about three days. After that I sat down with it and tried to figure out how to make it fit. I enjoy picking stuff apart, stretching and changing things, and that tune seemed to work well so I brought it in and it wound up on the record.

There's a funny story about recording that. When I first played it for Bill Anschell he said something like, "No, no, it's just going to sound like a re-harmonization of a The Beatles tune, you don't want to do that." So I started tweaking it a little and changing things and he kept resisting, saying, "No, it's too weird." When we were sending around the mixes to the guys, Bill called me and said, "You know, you were right, that's my favorite tune on the record." [laughs] The whole thing was pretty funny.

AAJ: The rhythm section seems to have a lot of fun with your tunes. How were these guys able to enhance what you brought into the studio?

CM: What's great about Jeff, John and Bill is how they approach each project. If you listen to them on [saxophonist] Brent Jensen's records, it has a totally different vibe than my record. Another example of something completely different would be Jeff and John playing with [pianist] Hal Galper. One of the reasons that so many people use them is because they pick up so easily on whatever's needed for a particular situation. Even from tune to tune, they'll easily pick up on a different vibe. When I brought in the tune "Bock's Car," for example, I knew Jeff Johnson would be all over it.

AAJ: Your playing is very lyrical on "Bock's Car." Much like the rhythm section, you seem to adapt your style to the diversity of your compositions. Is this a result of your experiences as a free-lance musician who is thrown into a multitude of playing situations?

Chad McCullough / Seattle Women's Jazz OrchestraCM: Like anyone else who's trying to make a living playing music, I do a variety of things. I do a lot of terrible gigs, things you might not want other people to know about. But I think you draw from all of your experiences. Just like playing a salsa gig one night and a free, improvised gig the next, you have to play to the gig.

As for the record, each one of these tunes has its own character so in a way it's like playing to the gig on each tune. All the guys on the record are like that. Bradfield sounds like a totally different tenor player on "Bock's Car" than on a fast tune like "Anatomy of Conscience." Being around great musicians who can change and adapt has been a big influence on me.

AAJ: Besides the musicians on your record, who else influenced you growing up in Seattle?

CM: When I started to really get into playing music, trumpet players like Thomas Marriott and Jay Thomas were around playing all the time. I got to hear a lot of incredible music. When I was in high school, I used to sneak out of my house to go hear Tom Marriott play downtown. It was a cool time. As up and down as the scene has been in Seattle, the people who have been the real icons here have been so helpful; a whole bunch of really nice people.

AAJ: You recently spent three weeks at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada, studying with trumpeter Dave Douglas.

CM: I don't know how to say this without sounding weird but when you look in the magic mirror and ask "Who's the best of them all?," it's Dave Douglas for me. The whole experience up there was very cool. The faculty was Joshua Redman, Tony Malaby, Jerry Granelli and Don Byron. On top of that there were 60 musicians from all over the world. We were pulling 20-hour days, playing, writing and arranging. They have a club on the campus with four bands playing every night. There's also a recording studio so you have people putting projects together left and right. It was also eye-opening to hear people from all over the world; guys from Slovakia who could just crush everyone on the piano. It was a life changing experience.

AAJ: Any new music set to be recorded?

CM: I'll be going into the studio soon to record a suite I composed while I was up at Banff. I'm using a clarinetist from Ireland and a pianist from Portland who were both up there with me. I also play in a pretty cool band called the Andrew Oliver Kora Band. It's an interesting band that incorporates some traditional West African sounds. We'll be recording some new material soon.

Geof Bradfield will be coming to town to do a CD release for Dark Wood, Dark Water, so I'm tempted to do something else with that same group, at least a live recording. I want to be involved with lots of projects. One of the things I got from Dave Douglas at Banff was to enjoy a record when it's completed. Sit down and have a beer that night and feel good about it, then wake up the next morning and figure out what you're going to do next.

Chad McCulloughAAJ: You're involved with the daily operations at Origin Records. What's a typical day like working with the label?

CM: All sorts of things. I might spend the day mailing out CDs, working on graphics for the Website, or working on finding potential new artists. There are three of us, John Bishop, Matt Jorgensen and myself, so we all do what we can to keep the boat moving in the right direction. We also produce the Ballard Jazz Festival every year during the last week of April so when that comes around it takes up all of our time.

A lot of the time, I just do what I'm told and learn from John and Matt. They're so great at what they do and really help me figure things out. It was supposed to be a temporary thing at first. They just asked me to help out with some busy work, but now it's been almost three years and I love it. We're fortunate to have a steady stream of projects that come in, so we can pick and choose the best ones. We have a strong enough artist roster with guys who are constantly trying to make more music. Hopefully, we do things that make people happy.

Selected discography

Chad McCullough, Dark Wood, Dark Water (Origin Records, 2009)
Seattle Women's Jazz Orchestra, Meeting of the Waters (OA2 Records, 2007)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Origin Records



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