Taylor Haskins: Raising His (Trumpet) Voice

R.J. DeLuke By

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I've been into the idea of writing music for movies since I saw Star Wars (1978). I was obsessed with that music. I was just starting trumpet around that time. I was aware of the trumpets in the music. That was huge for me.
Taylor Haskins is forging more of a career in the jazz world, and it's based on his solid musicianship and flair on the trumpet: a good strong tone, good chops, and a wide array of influences, translating into him being at ease and formidable in many styles, including being plugged-in. In addition to stepping out more on his own as a solo player, he can be found, in recent years, with the likes of Richard Bona, Guillermo Klein, Jamie Baum, and the Dave Holland Big Band.

He's also forging a career in commercial music—jingles for major advertising campaigns and other forms of masking digital music for commercial projects—still a major part of how Haskins makes a living. The New Hampshire native has been on the scene as a performing musician since the late 1990s,but that part of his career has grown in the last few years and is now a major focus. He's finding his own place. His own voice.

On American Dream (Sunnyside Records, 2010), his third as a leader, Haskins delivers a series of tunes, relatively short for a jazz record, with only one over eight minutes and some in the two-to-three-minute range; it's refreshing, in a sense. They deal with today's society through the concepts of breakdown, destruction, and abandonment. They also touch on what he views as the ideal—something not likely to take place—and the power of the mind to remember things. Through it all, Haskins' trumpet weaves intelligently through the varying moods, including some electrified trumpet. Not surprising, from someone who counts Miles Davis as his main influence, especially electric Miles.

Notably, Haskins' blowing isn't muscle-flexing from a guy who studied classical music at the University of New Hampshire, and then relocated to New York City to study at the Manhattan School of Music. "I'm really trying to use the trumpet like a voice," says Haskins, who can also play keyboards, and plays melodica on the record. "The only difference is my body is making the sound. Everybody that plays an instrument really is trying to sing, I feel. It's kind of a substitute for the voice. To me that's a goal. Not to make it about the instrument itself, but to transcend the instrument. [To] Try and be singing all the time. Joe Lovano is a perfect example. He's just singing all the time. Music, music, music. Any number of players. He just pops into my head as one of my favorites."

Also, expressing himself through typical jazz notions isn't all that important to him. Certainly, he can, and does, do that. But, "I still don't really know if I'm fully a jazz musician." Haskins says. "I know that's basically what I do. Through the commercial work I've done, I've had the opportunity to explore a lot of different styles. Eventually, that's all going to seep in. I feel like jazz is just a part of that.

"Because it's my third record, it felt like cycles of threes or something," Haskins continues. "It was cathartic in some ways. The thing is, this project arose after I had finished a project that's coming out in December [2010; Recombination, on 19/8 Records]. That project is a forward-thinking, positive kind of project. It's an electro- acoustic thing. After I did it, I realized it wasn't a reflection of how I was feeling, but more like how I wanted to feel. Before I moved on, musically, I felt like I needed to do something [American Dream] to expunge the darkness hovering in there. All my mixed up feelings about what's going on in the country. All the different problems we had.

"I needed to do something to show that aspect of what's going on in my life," Haskins concludes."It started there. It's a really specific personal viewpoint. So I started stepping further and further back from that. I tried to get an overview of what America is and what this dream that they've been hanging in front of everybody's face like a carrot for 50 years or more. What that really represented and how that worked on people's minds. All the other ramifications of that action of holding something in front of people as an ideal that might never be reached, but everybody agrees it's a dream. A dream implies it's never going to happen. When I started ruminating about it that was the most glaring thing for me. How it's so obvious. They call it the American Dream. Dreams are dreams. When you sleep, that's another world. That dream doesn't cross over into reality in any correlating way. There's a kind of deception behind it. I wanted to expose that in the best way I could."

As for the short duration of some tunes, it was deliberate. "I have a fairly short attention span lately. That's the nature of our culture too. I really wanted to make specific emotional points with each song. You don't really need a lot of time to do that. You need a lot of time if you're expounding on an idea. Most jazz records are doing variations on a theme. Over and over. Which is great, but on this project I wanted to be concise."

"Invocation: American Dream" is an ethereal opening, where Haskins plays over a soft, but persistent rhythm. His sound dominates via a calm melodic line, underscored by Ben Monder's guitar. Brief, but elegant. "Theme from 'Dead Man,'" a Neil Young tune, finds Monder and Haskins playing twisting unison lines over a cinematic theme. "That movie, for me, embodies the same feeling I'm trying to get across with the record," says the trumpeter.

"Mustangs (Steve McQueen)" also seems like it could be for a movie theme; and, in fact, it was inspired by just that. Haskins says "it was musically based on the chase scene from the 1968 movie, Bullitt [The scene had the main character, played by McQueen, in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 CID fastback]. I'm a huge Lalo Schifrin fan [Schfrin composed the movie score]. I love his film writing. That's a big aspiration of mine, a secret aspiration if you will, to be a film composer one day. I was studying the scene and it stayed in my mind. The finality of it. I was trying to capture that in a really abstract way. As I was doing it, I realized the reason the scene was so successful in the movie is it encapsulated Steve McQueen's psyche at that moment. A moment of extreme tension and sustaining that tension for a certain period of time. I liked to explore that feeling."

"Black Boxes" contains influences of electric Davis. It starts out simply, with a plaintiff, muted trumpet, but as the music gets more spacey and intense, Monder's guitar comes in like a lion. Like a rock music lion, with some distortion and a hard edge. Haskins enters blaring, but with a tone that's different than most electrified trumpets; his lines piercing but almost orchestral. ("I'm playing through a distortion pedal and a phaser," he notes.)

"That music is a huge influence on me," Haskins says of Miles from that period. "I'd have to say that's my favorite music. If you went to my iTunes and looked at 'most played,' it would all be Miles stuff from '67 to '75. I also love the electric stuff after that. It's a huge influence, for sure. But I try not to do anything overt. Sometimes it's unavoidable to cross over into what people have already done ... I love hearing his tone. It becomes something else. The record Get Up With It (Columbia, 1974), I love how he's using the wah-wah on that record because it disguises the trumpet. You don't really need the trumpet on that record. It's not a trumpet record, necessarily. It's this other thing. On that record it works so well."

One might think "The Ballad of Michael Jackson" would be a funky kind of thing, but it's not. Haskins plays beautifully on this gentle ballad, showing delightful melodism, as does Monder. "I was thinking about the old western ballads. A song somebody would sing about to honor somebody they knew. To describe them and encapsulate them. I love Michael Jackson. I idolized since I was a kid. I went through a long period of not paying attention to what he did. But always appreciated him," Haskins says. "His best stuff is incredible. I wanted to pay tribute in that way and write a ballad. Try to do my best to honor him musically and embody some of the feelings he was trying to communicate to people."

Bassist Ben Street and drummer Jeff Hirschfield are extremely supportive throughout. Some of the rhythms are very delicate. The moods vary. And they handle things superbly, allowing Haskins to make his statements.

"I love the way it came out. I didn't know what to make of it when we finished the sessions. Because I've known these guys for so long and know their playing so well ... So I wrote with their playing in mind and the ensemble in mind. It was pretty fluid when we got to the studio. It seemed to go by very quickly for me. I did one day in the studio at first, hoping it would be enough. It wasn't. Then I had a month go by in between and we had another day in the studio. So we had these two really intense days of hearing this music, with no rehearsal, that worked out great in the end."

Haskins hasn't toured to support the music yet, but hopes to in the fall. In the meantime, he remains busy playing in New York City, where he has been since 1995, though he has periods of traveling to Los Angeles for commercial work.

But it all started on piano for Haskins—who, at the age of four, would tap out songs he heard on television. Ironically, the first noticeable tune was "You Deserve a Break Today," a McDonald's fast food restaurant jingle. "I remember not being able to see the keys. I could feel the side of the keys. Plunking it out. The sad irony, or kismet of life, brought me to writing commercial music when I was 27 or 28. The first thing I ever sold was a McDonald's thing."

Piano lessons started at age five, and he picked up the trumpet at about age ten. He earned scholarships to both undergraduate and graduate school to pursue his musical studies. But for Haskins, 38, growing up did not involve hearing jazz on radio or TV. At a department store he bought two cassette tapes on a "buy one get one free" offer. One was Aerosmith. The other contained hits of Miles Davis.

"I just wore them out, shooting basketball in my driveway and playing them on the boom box over and over. Aerosmith was very popular, and there was plenty of information on them. But for Miles Davis, there wasn't information. There was no Internet. I couldn't just go absorb quickly some information. I really didn't know much about him until I got to college. I knew a little bit in high school from stage band. You know caricatures of people whose music you're playing. You don't really know fully who they were."

Maynard Ferguson also became a big influence, but "in college I really locked into Miles. That one tape. It was a real mixed bag too. A couple things from his electric period. A couple things from the '50s. There was one tune from Decoy (Columbia, 1984), 'What It Is.' I played that over and over. I could see how it related to the things I was into. I was also into prog rock, like Genesis and Rush, things like that. It was a gradual crossover for me."

From Davis, he picked up John Coltrane and then guitar players like Pat Metheny. And Wynton Marsalis, because he was doing the classical/jazz crossover thing at the time. I was studying classical trumpet and really just learning about jazz, so that was a huge influence."

At the Manhattan School of Music, he got some tutelage from the extraordinary trumpeter Lew Soloff. "He's great. He just has a lot of knowledge about the trumpet. The kind of knowledge I needed at the time. I'm an instinctual player. I haven't studied a lot formally. All the formal studies I've ever done have, at first, set me back. Then I come back to things, after I've recovered from whatever mistakes I made from making adjustments, based on what the people were saying. I could take pieces of it later on and incorporate it. But in general, it wasn't really helping much. It was very dogmatic stuff. 'Do this exercise over and over and then you'll be successful.' That wasn't working for me. It was really all about this new thing, to me, which was the Carmine Caruso method, which was all about treating it like calisthenics or something. Focusing your air and how you use your air more efficiently, which made a lot of sense to me. That was great for me."

After graduating, he picked up work in New York. "I started playing in Broadway shows, subbing around. Rehearsal bands all the time. The first big gig I had was playing with Maynard Ferguson. It only lasted a few months. To get the call to go out with him was kind of special. Playing with him for a few months was great. I started playing with Maria Schneider's band when she was at Visiones [a NYC club]. That got me hooked up with a lot of people, spread the word. That was a great thing."

But he also saw another pursuit in the late 1990s.

"Literally speaking, it was a New York Times ad. I haven't ever looked in the New York Times for work before or since. There was this ad for midi transcribers. I thought it was interesting. I applied and got the job transcribing popular songs into midi files. This company was starting music software. To write music based on algorithms. They were touting it as artificially intelligent music creation or something. And it did work. It was a fascinating project. I started working on that, and then I realized a little bit into it that the company that was funding the whole project was tomandandy, which at the time was a really big music production house for commercials in New York City. I got hooked into them that way. A fluke. Otherwise, it's kind of an impossible scene to get into.

"I worked there full-time for four or five years. A lot of the people I was working with started their own production houses, so since then I've been freelancing for various friends. It's good work. I work from home," says Haskins, who has a wife and four-month-old son, with whom he enjoys spending time. "It's really fun. ... Working on it full time was kind of a drag sometimes because you have interact with the clients and hear their direct thoughts on your music and try and talk to them in their language about it. That was kind of painful. And challenging in a good way too. It's nice now, working from home."

Unlike many jazz musicians, Haskins does not teach music, so the commercial projects are a big part of his earning power. "I was on the road for a long time, until recently, with Richard Bona. I was still doing the writing thing, but I let it go for a little while. I've since stopped on the road with him so I picked [commercial work] up again for a little while. It's great, because I can do it between the gaps with the trumpet playing. I usually play everything on [projects. There are very few instances where you get to call a session player in. So, often I'm playing guitar and bass and drums, or programming them at least."

He has written and produced music for clients such as Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Target, AT&T, Buick, Smirnoff and MasterCard, Bounty, LL Bean, Canon as well as music and sound design ford has done network IDs on the USA and the WE cable television stations. He has also contributed some original music for small independent films. "That was through tomandandy, because they were into that. They did the music to Killing Zoe (1993), that Roger Avery did. Every once in a while they'd get some kind of crazy filmmaker ...we were writing crazy, crazy music that we weren't expecting anybody would like, let alone put in their movie. But it would get stuck in somewhere. Since then, I've done a couple things, but mostly music for short films and independent things here or there."

Bigger movie work is an aspiration.

"I've been into the idea of writing music for movies since I saw Star Wars (1978). I was obsessed with that music. I was just starting trumpet around that time. I was aware of the trumpets in the music. That was huge for me."

Amidst all this other work, performing jazz music was still something Haskins pursued, with continued success. In 2003, he released his debut recording Wake Up Call on the Fresh Sound/New Talent label. He was making records with other folks as well. And getting calls from people like Dave Holland for his big band. "That was a great call. I didn't know if it was over for me in jazz," he notes. "The jazz gigs I was doing were really fun. Guillermo Kleins band, before he was really popular. There were little things that we didn't do for money, they were just for the music. I was fine with that. If I did that and the commercial music, I was cool. Then Dave Holland called and asked if I wanted to go on the road with his big band. I guess that answered that question. That brought me back; I felt like I'd fallen out of balance in terms of writing versus trumpet. That kicked me back to the right balance."

Haskins plays on Overtime (Dare2, 2005), a Grammy winner for the big band.

And now he continues to play around the Big Apple with people like Baum, Andy Rathbun and Alan Ferber. "I've been pretty busy with the trumpet," Haskins says.

The recording to be released in December is with Monder, Henry Hey, Todd Sickafoose and Nate Smith. "That's an electro-acoustic thing," Haskins says. "Then over the winter I'm going to record another thing with this [American Dream] quartet. I'm starting a period of high activity, I think. Commercial writing has taken a back seat. It's great. I wouldn't trade it. I don't have the patience to teach. That's why I was looking for a job like that."

But he's already thinking about the next album, and "Right now I'm trying to wrap my head around what is the next concept."

More of Taylor Haskins' brawny trumpet is a good thing. There are a lot more pleasures to derive from his creativity.

Selected Discography

Taylor Haskins, American Dream (Sunnyside Records, 2010)
Richard Bona, Bona Makes You Sweat (Universal, 2008)
Guillermo Klein, Filtros (Sunnyside, 2008)
Taylor Haskins, Metaview (Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2006)
Dave Holland Big Band, Overtime (Dare2, 2005)
Taylor Haskins, Wake Up Call (Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2003)
Guillermo Klein, Los Gauchos 3 (Sunnyside, 2003)
Andrew Rathbun, True Stories (Fresh Sound, New Talent, 2001)

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