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Natalie Cressman and Secret Garden: New York, September 6, 2012

Daniel Lehner By

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Natalie Cressman and Secret Garden
New York, NY
September 6th, 2012

The trombone is not an instrument that tolerates mediocrity. Because of the instrument's many idiosyncrasies, there's no real chance for the slide instrumentalist to get caught in the purgatory of empty virtuosity often exhibited by up-and-coming guitarists and saxophonists. The practitioners who persevere to make their own sound, like the 20-year-old trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman, tend to go right from being decent musicians to being excellent ones. Cressman, who honed her skills both in college at the Manhattan School of Music and on the road with jam impresario Trey Anastasio, shows her knowledge of not only how to play the trombone in a unique and effective manner, but also when to play. As a composer, bandleader and vocalist, Cressman's Secret Garden was crafted to show her abilities as an improvising musician and a stylistic interpreter on her own terms.

Cressman's writing draws stylistically from a few different vantage points, sometimes even simultaneously. "Flip," the first track on Secret Garden's debut album Unfolding (Self-produced, 2012) performed to celebrate the CD's release at DROM, spent most of its time cast in the kind of hard bop urgency and soulful intricacy of sextets like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but the head and solos were preceded each time by a volatile 3/4 vamp recalling both hip-hop and Afro-Cuban music. "Fortune's Fool" had the other horns (trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg and tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown) bustling around Cressman's pretty and conversational vocals, with harmonies that were unconventional but not jarring and complete with a pop-worthy crescendo towards the end. There was even a little bit of chamber music in the gradually shifting canon of "Waking" before it got into its soulful core.

Secret Garden also took an eclectic approach to previously recorded material. Cressman's second-generation arrangement of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" culled inspiration from both the Charles Mingus original and the Joni Mitchell re-interpretation, mashing up complex and occasionally razor-sharp horn lines with Mitchell's portrait-like lyrics. The band's anachronistic take on Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" was a down-tempo hip-hop rendition, which not only reached beyond the previously understood generational limit for hip-hop/jazz by about 30 years, but also chemically changed the intention of Andy Razaf's lyrics from saccharine and pining to coy and playful. Jumping several decades into the future, "Do Not As I Do," written by the relatively obscure Norwegian musician Hanne Hukkelberg, got augmented with rollicking Middle Eastern drum/bass rumbles but held strong to the integrity of the original melody.

The last element of success that Secret Garden employed was the musical prowess of its cast members. Cressman showed off a trombone sound that can only come out of jazz study, as it was naturally imbued with shades of Janice "Ms. JJ" Johnson and Slide Hampton, but it also resonated with a certain soulful angularity that comes from diversity, her upper register washed in a shimmer not unlike fellow New York slide technician Josh Roseman.

Rosenberg's trumpet was manic and flighty, but also had a compositional and melodic logic working underneath and Lefkowitz-Brown gave his best declarations of both ferocity and quietness. Bassist Martin Nevin used his fleetness to give the moving bass/piano lines a stronger dose of integrity and on the treble end of the spectrum, pianist Pascal Le Boeuf soloed with a clever outness and used Cressman's "Whistle Song" to elevate the somewhat clichéd idioms of groove jazz with dramatic darkness, a la a gothic Robert Glasper. Jake Goldbas's carefully tempered and colorful drumming worked itself into all of Secret Garden's idioms, especially during his pocket-heavy, festival-style escalation of Cressman's "That Kind" which also featured a snaky and unpredictable solo by guest Peter Apfelbuam.


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