Coloring Between the Lines: Singer-Songwriter and Trombonist Natalie Cressman Brings Her Joy to Seattle

Feeling the joy: Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini.
Photo: Lauren Desberg Photography. All rights reserved.

Versatile and classy as always, Natalie Cressman brings her duo act, with Ian Faquini, to the Royal Room on March 27th. She was kind enough to take some questions over email.


Seattle Star: How many times have you played Seattle now, and with which musicians? Which venues?

Natalie Cressman: I’m pretty sure this is the fourth time in Seattle with one of my own projects and the sixth time total. I’ve played at Tula’s with my 5-piece band as well as my with duo with Mike Bono, and then this will be my second time at the Royal Room with Ian Faquini. On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve also played The Showbox and The Moore Theater with the Trey Anastasio Band.

Seattle Star: Which of the Seattle gigs do you cherish the most?

Natalie Cressman: Our last time at the Royal Room was honestly my favorite Seattle gig to date. It was our first time bringing the Brazilian music project up this way and the Royal Room community gave us a warm welcome. We split the bill with an incredible local duo, Marina Albero & Adriana Giordano, and they joined us for a few songs during our set and totally lit the place up!

Seattle Star: What are your favorite places to visit in Seattle, and why?

Natalie Cressman: I know it might be very touristy, but as a lover of seafood, Pike Place Market is still a must every time I come to town. I’d say most of my favorite places when I visit a city are food-related, because Ian and I are serious foodies. We had an amazing meal at this Basque restaurant, Harvest Vine, last time we were in town and are hoping to have time to stop back in.

Seattle Star: You cite Roswell Rudd and Jimmy Knepper as crucial influences. Which performances by them meant the most to you, and why?

Natalie Cressman: What I take most from Roswell’s music and playing was what a commanding presence he had via his sound. Tone has always been a big priority to me both in my own playing and in the trombonists I most enjoy listening to, and with Roswell, his tone is so distinctive that you can tell it’s him after one note.

I think early on, his playing inspired me to develop my sound and come into my own style, and also to not be afraid to play more aggressively on the instrument. One of my favorite of his albums was the one he did with Toumani Diabaté, Malicool. Kora and trombone was just such an unusual pairing to begin with, but as a fan of both artists individually, I felt they complemented one another so well.

I listened to a lot of Jimmy Knepper via Charles Mingus’ albums when I was growing up. I absolutely love his tone and phrasing. Particularly Jimmy’s solo on “Hatian Fight Song” made a big impression on me, the way he was so nimble and able to hang at double-time tempos without sacrificing tone or clarity. His plunger work is also masterful, I definitely transcribed a few of those as well.

Seattle Star: Did you ever see Rudd and/or Knepper play live? If so, where, when, and your reactions?

Natalie Cressman: Unfortunately I never got the chance to see either live. I believe Jimmy Knepper passed away when I was 12 and just starting out as a player, and I unfortunately missed Roswell’s last performances when I was living in New York.

Seattle Star: You mastered Charlie Parker solos on trombone. How did you go about adapting Parker’s fleet flights to “the slowest of all instruments,” as my old band teacher Clarence Acox said?

Natalie Cressman: Playing Bird transcriptions on the trombone is a daunting task indeed, but I’ve found it absolutely essential to developing bebop language on the horn. Earlier on, I would read solos out of the “Charlie Parker Omnibook,” but these days I mostly work by ear. I piece it together at a fraction of the tempo so that I can get inside every single note and inflection.

It’s impossible to get the lines to flow at a fast tempo with any clarity if you don’t break it down slowly first. Sometimes, I may also need to mess around with octave transposition in order to keep it within a workable range on the trombone. It’s a slow process, but I love the challenge of taking the solo language of other instruments and making it work on the trombone.

Seattle Star: How does your trombone playing influence your singing, and vice versa?

Natalie Cressman: The older I get the more I realize that they are one and the same voice. I approach singing the way I play, and I try to play like a vocalist. I think my experience as a vocalist heightens the importance of melody when I am playing: I even visualize the lyrics of tunes while I’m playing so that my phrasing really holds true to the essence of the song.

Even when I’m improvising a solo, I’m mostly striving to create singable melodies in the moment, to be clear and deliberate with the lines I am constructing and not have them be too mathematical. And then on the flip side, I think I am able to easily harmonize when I’m singing because I’m so used to being an inner voice as a trombonist. I spend so much time playing in horn sections, either playing written harmonies or harmonizing on the fly, so it makes it easy for me to find other pathways to harmonize a melody when I’m using my voice.

Natalie Cressman and Ian Faquini.
Photo: Lauren Desberg Photography. All rights reserved.

Seattle Star: How did you get hooked up with the Trey Anastasio Band? Did you sing, play, or both?

Natalie Cressman: It was my freshman year of college when I got the call from Trey. He had originally called my dad for a tour, but at the time my dad was going to be on the road with Carlos Santana, so he recommended me for the TAB gig. Trey called me up to gauge my interest (obviously I was very excited), and then I had an informal audition, stopping by a gig. Jennifer Hartswick was playing in town. She was the one to “vet me”, to tell Trey whether I might be a good fit.

So I showed up and immediately sat in on a song I had never heard before, and we hit it off musically and personally right away. I think she called Trey late that night and gave him the green light to bring me onboard. I was hired primarily as a trombone player, but once they found out I could sing, they put me to work with a bunch of backup vocals as well. The band has become more and more vocal-oriented as time goes on, especially since James Casey joined the band and it was a full section of horn players who sing.

Seattle Star: What were your most important lessons learned from working with the Phish singer?

Natalie Cressman: I learned a lot (and am still learning!) from Trey’s constant work ethic and passion to learn and create. He has never slowed down or rested on his laurels, and I find it super inspiring how he is always bringing in new material and is tweaking old material to make it even better.

I also appreciate his skills as a bandleader, how he encourages everyone to be themselves musically and is so generous with giving each band member time to shine on every show. He has been a huge supporter of me putting out my own music…he’s always been a huge cheerleader of all of our solo projects.

Seattle Star: How has your playing and writing with Ian Faquini grown and changed over the years? Are you still writing lyrics to his completed tunes?

Natalie Cressman: Our musical chemistry has definitely developed as we play more live shows. I think we’ve both learned how to support one another on the bandstand and to complete each other’s musical sentences. As far as writing goes, our roles have become pretty carved out, and we’ve settled on a pretty consistent process: Ian composes the song material, and I contribute English lyrics, vocal arrangements, and on this record, horn arrangements.

The elaborate trombone arrangements that permeate the album from start to finish became a great outlet for me to also compose material for the project. Spending more time together during the pandemic, I was also around during more of Ian’s initial writing process and was more able to contribute some general ideas and have input as he was composing, but normally his compositional process is more of a solitary activity. So a lot of the collaboration really comes about once the basic structure is there, in the arranging and recording process.

Seattle Star: Where and when did you record your new album, Auburn Whisper? Where or what is Auburn?

Natalie Cressman: We recorded the album in the early months of the pandemic, in spring and summer 2020, at my father’s home studio in San Francisco. It started as a way to pass the time during the initial lockdown, but we got into a rhythm of recording at his studio every week and before we knew it we had a 13-song album.

Auburn is a reddish-brown color, and the title track, “Auburn Whisper” refers to the majestic California redwoods that inspired the song. The redwoods are actually part of the inspiration and story behind a few other tracks as well.

Seattle Star: What are your favorite tracks from the new album, and why?

Natalie Cressman: I love the title track, it’s one of my favorite collaborations with Ian and also one of the more autobiographical. I love coloring between the lines genre-wise, and this song pulls from so many of our collective influences. But I also think it’s a song that elicits an immediate emotional response, and as songwriters and performers, that’s really a big part of why we make music.

I also really enjoy “Ralando Coco,” one of Ian’s collaborations with his lyricist Iara Ferreira. The Portuguese lyrics are a feast of tongue-twisting phrases and crafty double-entendres, and the rhythmic vitality and playfulness of the melody transcend any potential language barriers. It was also a song that lay on the cutting room floor for months, and then I begged Ian to just let me arrange some horns for it anyways, and once I had layered the horns in, it really gave the song a new energy and made it feel complete and deserving of being included on the album.

It has become a lot of people’s favorite song in both our live shows and on the album, so it’s ironic that it was one that at one point was at the bottom of the pile.

Seattle Star: What are your plans for the future?

Natalie Cressman: We really hope to be able to return to touring internationally, as we were starting to do when the pandemic hit. It brings us a lot of joy to get to play this music in front of an audience, especially since we were without that experience for most of the last two years. Bringing joy to the audience through music is something I certainly cherish and will never take for granted again!

Natalie Cressman & Ian Faquini at The Royal Room, March 27, 2022 @ 8:00 pm Cost: $15 Doors at 7pm. Tickets available from Stranger Tickets.

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