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Thomas Marriott: Balance in Life and Music


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If one should by chance be curious of what is happening with jazz in the city of Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest, one would do well to check out what trumpeter Thomas Marriott is up to. Thomas has established himself as one the most exciting artists to emerge on the national jazz scene in the past decade, in part by releasing eleven albums as a leader on the Origin Records label, and with his riveting live performances on stage with the best musicians the region has to offer. His insight into the music, those who perform it, and the Seattle jazz scene in general, is informed, enlightened, and valued. As a musician, he has certainly paid his dues, performing with some of the top names in jazz both nationally and locally, including Joe Locke, Maynard Ferguson, Brian Lynch, Kenny Kirkland, Orrin Evans, George Colligan, and scores of others. After a period spent in New York, Thomas returned to Seattle with a standard that has raised the bar ever higher here in Seattle for all musicians on the scene. He can be seen frequently at his performances, and at jam sessions around town. Equally adept as a composer, he has earned the respect of both veteran and young musicians, and understands fully his place and responsibilities as an artist of note, in a city that has produced a historically significant amount of talent and impacted jazz music in America in an unique and meaningful way. I sat down with Thomas at Caffe Fiore in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, and thoroughly enjoyed our time chatting about his career, and more importantly, about the continually evolving jazz scene in Seattle.

All About Jazz: Let's start at the beginning, when did jazz music come to your attention?

Thomas Marriott: My Dad had a jazz radio program, and he was always a collector of jazz records, so he had thousands of jazz records in our basement, which when we were kids, my brother and I , were off limits, don't touch Dad's records, so of course we did! He had Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, and we would go down there and play his records and listen to them. My uncle and my Dad were huge fans and collectors, and my grandfather was, I would hesitate to call him a jazz pianist, but his music almost predates jazz. He was born in 1910, so he was coming up learning to play music, as a teenager in '26, so that would be the period of time of the Hot Fives, he certainly was always a fan of Louis Armstrong, he played popular music in a certain stride style. How much improvising he did, was he down with the blues, I'm not really sure, but he knew a million tunes and he was a professional musician, he played many, many instruments. His favorite band was Jimmie Lunceford. So my upbringing was always music. My uncle used to blindfold test us, as kids of 10 or 11, he had this tape we used to play, "the bop quiz,"and it had Sonny Stitt on it, and Barry Harris, it had some hip music. He would bring it up and there would be a little questionnaire to fill out-my brother and I grew up with blindfold tests! Those were some of my earliest recollections of hearing the music. And they would drag us to see music. My Dad would took me to see all kinds of people, Art Blakey. His friends were piano players, he worked the late night shift when he was working in radio, he'd get off work at four in the morning and go to the jazz club, they were open back then, or he'd go to the places where the jazz musicians were hanging out, he had a lot of friends who were musicians.

AAJ: You chose trumpet, and your brother David, trombone, how did that come to be?

TM:We both started playing piano, and we had a bunch of these instruments, and my grandfather had a bunch of instruments, because he played all these instruments, so starting at three or four years old, Thanksgiving would be, "Come upstairs and play the tuba,"or "Come upstairs and horse around with the trumpet or trombone," so we always had access and exposure to the instruments. My Dad played trumpet and my uncle played trombone, so we had a trumpet and trombone in the house, and so when it came time to sign up for school band, we had already been fooling around. We actually both started playing trumpet, but then my brother's band director said, "We need a trombone player!" So he started playing trombone. Dave actually continued with piano, and is an accomplished pianist, sight reading on the piano, knows tunes on the piano. He could work as a pianist if he wanted to, but he decided not to....I cannot play anything on the piano!

AAJ: I did not know that about him! You went to New York for some time, and learned your craft playing with veteran players on gigs,and at jam sessions. Seems younger players are more now heading to New York, and elsewhere, to go to school to learn their craft. How do you see the role of education in music today, and achieving balance with experience, the traditional way, on the bandstand? TM: That was true when I went there too. I was on Maynard Ferguson's band, and when I gave notice I moved to New York and had a day job lined up, and apartment lined up, a place to stay. When I joined Maynard's band, I basically gave up my apartment, and put the few things that I had at my mother's house, and just lived out of a suitcase. When there was time off, I would go to New York, and stay with a friend, and look for an apartment, and all that stuff, so by the time I gave notice, I was ready to move full time. I went there to learn, and try to pay some dues, be challenged by the music scene. I had already gone to music school, which I didn't want to do in the first place, but I got a really affordable education at the University of Washington, at the time. Music school, especially in New York, can be good for helping you build community. My brother did that, he went to music school there, and a lot of the people he went to music school with are now huge, cover of Downbeat magazine and what not. So it helps to build community, but you can do that without music school, for sure. The idea was always was to try to pay dues, to try to be a sideman with some of the masters, or just be on the bandstand with them as much as possible. I think that at the time when I moved there, that was a thing. You would go out and see Mulgrew Miller, or you would see McCoy Tyner,or Elvin Jones, out playing on the scene, or even just hanging out at the bar. That's something that kind of stopped, during the time that I was there. There was less of a presence of the masters. They were still there, Eddie Henderson was out, George Coleman, you would see him, there were plenty of masters out there, but it wasn't like it used to be, from what I could tell.

AAJ: You are also a noted composer, take me through your writing process.

TM: I generally am always writing for a particular project, an album or a show. Even when writing music for a record, I'm always thinking about the live show. That's primarily what I do. I might think, "We need something that captures this vibe," in terms of needing something fast, or something pretty, or I need something that's bluesy, or I need something that's feeling different metered to break up the flow of the show from this tune to that tune. I need something on the gig I can call, that's going to be functionally easy for people to read and access the emotional content immediately. I do a lot of gigs where I travel and just use a rhythm section in another place, so I don't want them looking at the music the whole time, and want it to be relatively simple so that we can explore the vibe a little farther. Certainly there are things that I write that are more complicated, that require more rehearsal, those are for other kinds of projects. I'm always thinking more about the functionality of what I'm trying to write.What do I need to have written. And then, sometimes I'm just walking around Green Lake, and an idea will just stick in my head that I like, and I'll sing it into my phone, and then later on, go back and try to expand on it.

AAJ: You have recently been in the studio with pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Luques Curtis, and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. When will we see the result of that session on the market?

TM: It's probably going to be a bit. That was a fun session, it came about primarily as a way to keep that trio busy while they were here. But, I have something in the works that is first in terms of time frame. My process in the studio lately has been to go in with some ideas, and some not really formed ideas and just play, then take it all, and edit, overdub, add this, add that, bring in some other people, and sort of get in there with the digital tools, and sometimes make the music that way. And not to have too much of an agenda, because I feel like on the bandstand, that's what I like, the unpredictability. It's good to have a plan and have structure, and all that too, but with that particular session, we just went in and played a few things, and about half the tunes were great first takes, wouldn't do anything to change them, put them out just like that after I mix them, and some are pieces of tunes where I might try to put one together with another one, maybe with an improvisation in between. Or next time they come through, I might do another session, I'm actually not sure. There's a lot of really good raw material to work with. I'm also thinking about putting it out on vinyl, as just three songs on one side and two on the other. I have five awesome tracks. But it's going to be awhile only because I have another project that is a little more monumental for me, it's bigger budget for sure. I've been trying to make this record for almost ten years, and I've been in the studio on a couple different sessions trying to make it. It's a little hard to put into words, but, essentially, if you can picture an album that's more about melody, than it is about improvisation, kind of like a with strings record, but not with strings, although there may be some strings on it. So not a with strings record, but a record where I'm the singer, and it's sort of treated that way where it's not about burning interplay between the cats, as much as it is a statement of giving. I've tried to do this before, in one of the sessions that was an attempt, one track from that session made it onto the end of the album Flexicon, it's the Elvis Costello tune, Almost Blue. So if you've heard that tune, and can imagine a whole album sort of like that, or like the last tune on Individuation, which is called Returning, but better, more arranged, and more produced, if that makes sense. So this has been a long time in the making, and we're shooting for March to record. It's been a lot of figuring out what the material is going to be, there's been as much planning that I've done as any project I've ever done, maybe ever. Part of it is I feel there is a place for me to make that statement, not trying to make a killing jazz album, not trying to make a statement about anything political with this particular album, I'm not trying to show off any particular aspect of my musical ability, I just want to make it about beauty, because I feel like that's what people really need to hear. If you think of being a musician as in a sense somebody who tries to uplift people during a show, either through a funky groove, or through a long exploration of an idea, whatever it is to take people on a trip on a journey to help them feel better, to perk up their spirit, help them get on with their day. I think that if that is a goal, then I think that by putting something out that is just about melody and beauty, can be more effective to more people.

AAJ: What projects are you currently working on that we will see on stage here in Seattle?

TM: We've been busy writing new music for Human Spirit, for lack of a solid working band right now, that is my working band, Human Spirit, which has grown out of one of my projects, Human Spirit. At some point, we decided, this is ridiculous, because Matt Jorgensen had some gigs, and he was hiring me and Mark Taylor, and then I had gigs and was hiring Mark and Matt, so we decided we would go in on this thing together. So over the summer, we've been getting together and rehearsing, and working on some new material and all that. That's probably the thing you will see most, soon. I've spent a lot of the last year getting the septet music together that I premiered on my birthday. I don't know that we'll ever play it again, because it's a big band, it's a lot of people to pay, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of interest in anybody even nominally coming up with a fee that would make it work out, because it does require one rehearsal, I want it to be those same musicians, and that requires money.

AAJ: You recently released your second album with trumpeter Ray Vega, " The Return of the East West Trumpet Summit," which follows the first 2010 release that went to number one on the Jazz Week Airplay chart. Talk about your friendship with Ray and the impact it has had on your career.

TM: You could write a whole book about that! I used to see Ray with Tito Puente's band at Jazz Alley, they would come and play a week, sometimes two weeks, and there would be a lot of time off for the guys during the day, and I was going to college. Don Lanphere actually introduced us, I was going to the UW, and he had brought Ray up to do a little demo for Marc Seale's class, and he said, "There's a guy coming up, you should come meet him, his name is Ray Vega." He invited me to sit in, and we played a little bit, this little demo, and he said, "Come down and check out the band," and I did and we started hanging out. He would come back every year, and we would hang out, and one year he asked if I could help him find a gig for him and Bobby Porcelli when they came to town, so I helped them get a thing at Tula's, and they would come and stay at my Mom's house. We became friends, we would talk on the phone, he was kind of a trumpet coach, and then when I moved to New York, he was very supportive about letting me sit in on his gigs, setting me up to sub, keeping an eye out, and doing the thing that musicians have done throughout the years, which is, keep you honest, and tell you, "Man, don't do that!" And also, to encourage, that's what the music is about, community, that one to one relationship.

AAJ: Mentoring is a tradition in jazz, some say a tradition that is dying. Talk about who helped you along the way in this manner, and how you are continuing the tradition? TM: That's a funny thing, it is something that's dying, primarily because people are not seeking out those opportunities.

AAJ: Is music education replacing it to some degree?

TM: Six months ago I would have been quick to answer yes, I'm not totally sure it's that black and white, certainly that's part of it. Music education has taken a lot of the established, older, dues paid musicians off the scene, and that creates a much more difficult environment for somebody who wants to pay dues with bandleaders and all that, to get that kind of access, unless they go to school where those teachers teach. But I also see, at least around here, and not to be too critical, I see very few people who are genuinely interested in calling up those people who are the established, dues paid musicians, to play with them, go to their gigs, or hang out with them, to pick their brains about stuff, you don't see that. When I moved back to Seattle, I wanted to play with Jeff Johnson, Marc Seales, and Chuck Deardorf, Rick Mandyck, and John Bishop, Dave Peck, and Jay Thomas, obviously, those people that had the experience and knowledge that I wanted, because they were the people here that had that. And they still are! But I don't really get that sense of, "I want to get with those people that have what I want," it's more a sense of, " I'm just going to do my thing, I'm going to do what I do." I think there's a lot of validity to that too, I think it's great we live in a place where people are exploring their own musical identities, even if it doesn't conform to norms of what jazz is, that's all fine, but I'm also working in an idiom that has a tradition, where the bar is very, very high, and so in order for me to attain where that high bar is, or to be where that bar has already been set, I need to be constantly challenging myself, by playing with people that have what I'm seeking. That's a small group of people here (in Seattle), but it's also the reason I tried to play with people like Ray Vega, or Orrin Evans when he comes through town, because they're in touch with something that I need to be in touch with too. In terms of mentorship, who helped me out, I would say that I learned from everybody, from every gig, recently I learned from Skerik, and Tim Kennedy and those guys, playing with them. But I've learned from Rick Mandyck, Jeff Johnson, Marc Seales, and certainly Jay Thomas has been huge, I mean, he called me for my first gig, when I was fourteen, I give him a lot of appreciation. He's always been like that, he's always been very much trying to lend people a helping hand, he seems awfully willing to pass on what he knows, and I really appreciate that. I would pass on what I know too, but nobody wants to know.(laughter) It's not like my phone is ringing off the hook.

AAJ: How often do you practice, and what do you practice?

TM: I practice as much as possible, and as often as possible. I have to watch it, if I have gates that are demanding, but I love to play the trumpet, it's on my face as much as humanly possible. I would hesitate to put an hour figure on that. I mean, if I have nothing to do, it's all day, every day. Most of my practice, because my eyesight is beginning to slide, due to some health issues, a lot of my practice is memorizing music, and going through the music I'm going to perform for an upcoming performance, so I don't have to be so glued to the paper, but I also just try to practice the trumpet, all the fundamental techniques of the instrument.

AAJ: What are you listening to these days?

TM: The things that have been in my current rotation, right now, are Mingus Changes one and two, John Coltrane, "Living Space," and they just came out with a whole bootleg series of Miles Davis, live, recordings of the band with Herbie, Tony, Ron and Wayne. Those things have been on the Ipod shuffle I listen to in the car, all day, every day. I've been checking out the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, that album is really great. People give me CD's, and I listen to them, actually!

AAJ: I have been attending your gigs for some time now, and have witnessed an amazing evolution in your playing. A few things that stand out to me is your beautiful tone, which you have always been noted for, is stronger, you hit higher notes, and those with more clarity. Your playing posture is more upright and athletic. You have improved your health and fitness as well. Talk about the physical demands that are uniquely attributable to the trumpet.

TM: I wouldn't claim any expertise on that, but I would say that I ran into some problems, about five years ago, where I was having some real struggles, and I had to get with Greg Lyons, my sort of trumpet coach, and he really helped me straighten out my chops. From then, it took me a while to rebuild to get back to where I was, but I was able to rebuild my embouchure. I was able to get to a place where I was in the situation where I could have limitless expansion, in other words, the amount of practicing, if done correctly, and smartly, and not overdoing it, I had actually gained instead of always making myself tired. There's a thing about the trumpet where, if you practice too much, you can really do damage, and hurt yourself. When my kids were real little, you don't have a lot of time (laughter), so, I would have like thirty minutes, and I would try to hit it as hard as possible, and that's a bad idea. So now I'm a lot smarter about making sure that instead of practicing for two hours at a stretch, I practice like five times a day, for 15 or 20 minutes. I'm actually working on things that will actually lead to improvement, rather than just a maintenance thing. So part of that is my kids being older now, I have time, space. The other thing is, I don't have a lot of respect for professional musicians that don't practice. I think all of us get into this with the goal of, of looking for limitless expansion. With music, the sky is the limit, there's an infinite amount of things you can learn about your instrument, about music, about harmony, about rhythm, whatever it is, you never, ever run out of things to practice, or to learn. So the idea that a professional performing musician would leave his horn in the case, for days on end, or a drummer not touching his drum set, I just don't understand that, personally. To each his own, but, there is too much work to do, and I don't want to rest on my laurels, and I also don't want to be the local guy that has no jobs. You know what I mean? I could very easily never practice, never again try to improve, and I'd still have the same work, there's not that much of it, living in Seattle, and I would still get called for it. But I don't want to be just good enough for Seattle, I want to be good enough for any gig, at any time, any place, plus I hate being in a position of being uncomfortable, where I'm worried if my chops are going to hold up for a gig, do I have the skill set required to play this gig with complete dominance. I hate that feeling of being overwhelmed on the bandstand, unsure, without confidence. There's only one way to alleviate that, and that is to practice.

AAJ: You have a great family, two children in the mix, how do you balance that with the demands of a professional musician?

TM: That's a tough one. I'm not sure I do very well (laughter). In a certain way, it works out because I'm available during the day, I don't have a lot of private students, at this point, I have no private students. So after school, I'm around, I can cook dinner, wash the dishes, do laundry, do all that stuff. I'm really fortunate my wife has a really good job, and that we don't have to pay for child care. That would be a lot of money. I'm also very fortunate to have a very supportive family. My parents, my wife's parents, uncles, close friends that step in. My wife travels a lot for work, I travel a lot for work, so there have definitely been times that we have both had to travel at the same time, and family has been the only way that it would ever be possible. Otherwise it would just be me saying no to those opportunities. I've had to say no to things that were just logistically impossible, dealing with getting kids to school, fed and to bed. I'm fortunate that my wife has work that is meaningful to her, that is also stable, and I'm lucky for my family, I don't know how else I'd manage it. It is a trick to be out at the gig until two, and get up and take the kids to school, and to do it day after day. It's not just playing gigs either, you have to be a part of your community, and I think that's something that can always be improved upon, in any scene or any community, it is only as good as the people who are on it. If all the good people stay home, the scene is not very good. But when the people who can play, the people who are energized, the people who are enthusiastic, go out and participate on the scene, that's a good scene, that's what a scene is. I don't know if this really goes to the mentorship part of it, but I think people keeping the bar high, visibly keeping the bar high, is everybody's responsibility. It keeps the other people honest. Imagine the best pianist in town being at the jam session, not even playing, just sitting in the front row checking out all the other piano players, making them a little nervous, making them sweat, well, that's not mentorship, that's just keeping people accountable, and I appreciate that. So, I think that's part of my job as a musician too, and I think there's a lot of people who use having a family as an excuse to not do those things. I try to avoid that like the plague, and try to remember that responsibility. I can't make every show, but I try, I'm aware it's something I have to do. Plus, you have to show your face if you want the phone to ring, there's no getting around that.

AAJ: Lot's of great music, and people to play it with, living in the Ballard neighborhood in Seattle, beautiful family, great friends, life is good brother!

TM: I can't complain! I really can't complain, things are really good. I like it here, there are things about the community of musicians here that are not comparable to anywhere else. There's a real sense of comradery here, there's a real sense of community. It could be stronger, and I feel there is an interesting skill set that's displayed here. This is always a thing about, somebody comes through town, and they need a rhythm section, who are they going to get? In terms of straight ahead jazz, it's not as deep as it is in other places. That being said, there's a lot of opportunity to put your thing together, and explore your music, and your musical identity without a lot of judgement. Some places you live, everyone has to follow the fad, while we're not immune from that here, it is so much less so. If you see a big time trumpet player in New York, pretty soon everybody wants to play like that, is actively trying to play like that, that style, that thing, because they think that's what's going to make the phone ring for them. And so the fad continues. I'm not really interested in any of that, I'm interested in trying to find out who I am, what my music is about, to see how I can integrate with other people who are also trying to figure out what their music is about. That real human experience of human beings playing together, being themselves instead of bad imitations of other people. That sort of hero worship we get into in jazz sometimes becomes tired, you know what I mean? Putting these people on a pedestal and all that, I'm not really down with that either. The certain deification of certain musicians live and dead, is not always that helpful to the music. We also work in an idiom that has a lot of tradition that I don't want to be ignorant of either. There's a fine line. I see a lot of people who are ignorant about the music, about the tradition of the music, and it shows in their playing. I really feel that whole idea of tradition has become a little bit perverted over time, because there's an agenda of what you MUST learn this, you MUST learn that, you must be able to do this, I'm not sure I'm 100% down with that. When I hear people that don't know they're listening to Charlie Parker when it comes on, or they don't know they're listening to Wayne Shorter when it comes on, or Herbie Hancock, it shows in their playing. I think that the tradition that we stand in, is a well that we draw from, that makes our music deeper, and more connected to our ancestors.




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