Raised in an eclectic musical household, Natalie Cressman has only continued to diversify and expand her musical universe. Still in her early 20s, the trombonist/composer/vocalist has assimilated the full range of her sonic influences into a startlingly mature, strikingly original voice that melds the sophistication of modern jazz with captivating storytelling and intoxicating melodies reminiscent of indie rock’s most distinctive songwriters.
Cressman has spent much of the last three years touring the jam band circuit with Phish’s Trey Anastasio, while also performing with jazz luminaries Nicholas Payton, Wycliffe Gordon, and Peter Apfelbaum. Those varied experiences are reflected on her gorgeous second release, Turn the Sea. Anastasio calls the album “a beacon of light in an increasingly cold and mechanized era of music. Natalie is standing on the precipice of an incredible life in music, and if this album is any indication of where she’s headed, then I’ll be listening every step of the way.”
Inspired in part by those bandleaders’ boundary-blurring approaches, Turn the Sea reveals a sound that’s utterly uncategorizable but instantly accessible, one that belies but is also a product of Cressman’s youth. “I want to make music that my own generation can respond to,” Cressman says. “I would really love for anyone to listen to my music and find something to relate to. I don’t want to shut people out by being overly sophisticated and esoteric, even though everything I write is jazz-based and more dynamic and spontaneous than a lot of the music that is wildly popular.”
The disc features a stellar eight-piece band, largely culled from Cressman’s Bay Area peers: trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg, flutist and clarinetist Steven Lugerner, saxophonist James Casey, keyboardist Samora Pinderhughes, guitarist Gabe Schneider, bassist Jonathan Stein, and drummer Michael Mitchell join the bandleader, who sings and plays trombone. The two talents, she says, are intimately related. “I think the fact that I sing influences and affects the way I play the trombone and vice versa. The voice in my head that I write with and play with and sing with is the same, but the medium is different.”
Cressman was raised in San Francisco by parents who guaranteed she would be constantly surrounded by music. Her mother, Sandy Cressman, is a jazz vocalist who immersed herself deeply into the traditions of Brazilian music; her father, Jeff Cressman, is a recording engineer, trombonist, and longtime member of Santana. Natalie quite naturally began studying trombone with her father, but set out to be a dancer rather than a musician. She was an aspiring ballet dancer until her junior year of high school, when an injury set her on a different path.
Once she set her sights on a career in music, her parents provided not only role models but active assistance, helping to provide her with some of her earliest opportunities. “Seeing how inspired and passionate my parents were about what they were doing lit a fire in me once I decided to go for music,” Cressman recalls.
Her parents provided entrée to a number of enviable opportunities, but Cressman’s own prodigious gifts continued to merit her presence in any number of high-profile settings. She soon found herself playing salsa with Uruguayan percussionist Edgardo Cambon e Orquesta Candela, Latin Jazz with Pete Escovedo’s Latin Jazz Orchestra, world music with Jai Uttal and the Pagan Love Orchestra, and globally-inspired avant-garde jazz with multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum, a family friend who became a key mentor. Cressman continues to work with Apfelbaum in his ensembles, The New York Hieroglyphics and Sparkler.
Cressman switched coasts in 2009 to study at the Manhattan School of Music, and the following year was enlisted by jam band pioneer Trey Anastasio for his touring band. “I first met Natalie when she was 18, and I was instantly floored by how melodically and naturally she played and sang,” Anastasio says. “Natalie is the rarest of musicians. Born into a musical family and raised in a home filled with the sounds of Brazilian music, jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, she is seeping with innate musicality. Musicality is in her DNA.”
Following her jazz-oriented debut, Unfolding, with the more song-based Turn the Sea was at least partially a result of her tenure with Anastasio, Cressman says. “Trey always wants to include the audience, but he doesn’t dumb down his music to do it. I find myself between two worlds with the music that I’m writing; it’s not bread and butter jazz but it’s not wholly anything else either.”
It would be equally difficult to pinpoint Cressman’s music, and at the same time equally hard to resist its allure. The album’s title track marries her silken voice and lyrical trombone with a surging rhythm evocative of waves crashing and receding; “Fortune’s Fool” is a melancholy love song propelled by a somber, Middle Eastern-inflected pulse; “New Moon” sets enigmatic lyrics to a soulful, flute and Rhodes-driven groove which segues into a soaring chorus that draws on West African rhythms.
Lyrically, Cressman hopes to connect with listeners by dealing with universal subjects, while offering her own unique twist. “It’s interesting how many different ways you can write about love,” she says. “I like to put on different characters when I compose, because I feel like my own life is often too ordinary to write only autobiographical songs. Sometimes I use snippets of other people’s stories to create a new character and write from their perspective.”
The album also features songs by two of Cressman’s inspirations, reconfigured for her ensemble and voice. Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg provides “Do Not As I Do,” while “Blindsided” is a song by indie favorite Bon Iver. The latter maintains the ethereal mood conjured by the original. “He gets a lot of mileage out of not too much,” Cressman says of Bon Iver singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. “I’m trying to discover how little I can write and still have it mean as much as possible.”
The album ends with a remix of opening track “Turn the Sea,” courtesy of the band’s bassist in his electronica-producer guise of JNTHN STEIN. The track hints at yet more future directions for the adventurous Cressman, while making literal the song’s message of risk-taking. “It’s a good bookend,” she says, “coming back to where you began but in a totally different place.”