Acclaimed trumpet soloist and respected educator Rex Richardson has been described as “one of the world’s most engaging and astonishingly versatile trumpeters” (Style Weekly), and “among the very best trumpet soloists in the world today” (ITG). I was delighted to be able to catch up with him and to find out more.
What drew you to the trumpet as a child?
I think it’s funny in retrospect, that I began playing the trumpet, only because I’m asthmatic. My family, into which I was adopted as 9-month old, was not the slightest bit musical, but my mother tells me that I was drawn to music from the very beginning. Early on, I joined church and school choirs, and quite surprisingly (to anyone who has heard my raspy speaking voice) I was often given solo parts, so I must have had a bit of an affinity for it. Then at the age of ten, the family doctor suggested joining the school band on a wind instrument to assist with my asthma. Because my best friend at the time played the trumpet, I thought I’d give it a go!
Were there any particular early musical influences, or any musicians now that you particularly admire?
One of my very first influences, before I even really “took” to the trumpet at age 14, was Maurice Murphy. I had the Star Wars soundtrack on vinyl, because as an eight-year old (when the film was released in 1977) I thought the film – and the music – were the best things ever! The London Symphony personnel were listed in the credits, which is how I discovered Maurice and the rest of that phenomenal brass section. Years later I’d be thrilled to play with him and to develop a wonderful friendship with him and his lovely wife Shirley.
I think it was seeing Doc Severinsen on the Tonight Show, as well as seeing the Boston Pops on TV – when the trumpet section included Tim Morrison – that nudged me in the direction of wanting to pursue the trumpet more seriously. From that point, I was spending my allowance on records: Maurice André, Rafael Mendez, Wynton Marsalis (whose first records were just being released), Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Mike Brecker – these were the earliest influences, but the list started to expand rapidly.
To this day, the list of musicians that I admire continues to grow…to list all of them might be beyond the scope of this interview, ha-ha! I find inspiration in wildly varying sources, from trumpet artists of every stripe to jazz saxophonists, and from classical singers to rock bands. I’ve been blessed to share the stage with a number of my recent heroes (Trumpeters Pacho Flores, Sergei Nakariakov, Til Brönner, Wayne Bergeron; saxophonists Steve Wilson and Chris Potter); some I would love to play with are vocalists Jan DeGaetani, Dawn Upshaw and Inari George, as well as Beck and Radiohead.
I have spoken with a number of players for this blog, and one thing that keeps coming up is how players often get categorised or pigeonholed into one particular genre. This could be a tough one, but if you were pushed to have to categorise yourself into one particular musical genre, where would it be?
Interesting question. I think that everyone finds it convenient to label things & people, but I don’t think it’s so easy to do that for most players anymore. Someone might “live” in a particular genre but make strong statements in another…take Pacho Flores, who is renowned as a classical soloist but whose latest amazing recording features folk arrangements for trumpet and guitar. Or take Mark Inouye, one of the U.S.’s very best orchestral players, who is also a dynamite jazz improviser. In my case, it’s tough because I pretty much split my time and energy as a classical soloist and a jazz musician. I suppose I’d categorise myself as living in “new music,” if that can be considered a genre, because I specialize in post-bop as a jazzer and often premiere solo works on the classical side. However, my last recording featured “old” music – our famous concertos by Haydn, Hummel, Telemann, Albinoni and Tartini (albeit, played on modern rather than period instruments), and I often play tributes to Louis Armstrong or other “older” jazz trumpet legends.
So, I don’t really know! I used to be more concerned with musicians trying to “limit” me with a label, but I don’t really care anymore; I just play music that I enjoy.
You are renowned for your skill as an all-round musician playing a wide variety of settings and styles. Mentally, is there a big shift from going from say a concerto with orchestra to the next night, playing a jazz set?
In a word: YES! The bigger challenge for me is that I often need to shift in the middle of performances; that is, I might do a pops show with orchestra that features concertos in the first half and jazz in the second. But truly, the challenge for me is less about making the shift itself, than it is about being physically and mentally conditioned to play whatever I have to…I find that, if I get out of shape, it tends to be my physical conditioning on the classical side (mostly with regards to delicate attacks, pristine articulation, details like those) and my mentalconditioning on the jazz side (losing my sense of “flow” when improvising, getting rusty in certain keys, etc.).
How do you keep that level of versatility in your playing? Do you have a set routine that works for everything or do you have to change it drastically depending on what gigs you have in your diary?
I’ve found that a balance of disciplined routine and flexible adaptability works best for me. I have certain fundamentals that I love and tend to hit every day: Stamp bending exercises, Clarke Technical Studies with every form of articulation (including jazz), and flexibility. I have a quite elaborate routine with the Clarke book in particular; too complicated to detail here! But working jazz articulation into the mix with along my single, K-, double- and triple-tonguing helps me to feel that it’s natural to switch styles, like switching accents if you’re bilingual.
I also tend to do an elaborate workout on certain harmonically “dense” tunes, playing modes, arpeggios and bass lines, as well as improvising at different tempos, to keep my improvisation skills in shape. I still listen and transcribe too (mostly stealing licks from Chris Potter or other saxophonists I admire!).
Beyond this though, my practicing tends to be based on what I need: What’s the repertoire for the next concert? Am I rusty in some area; e.g., is my single tonguing getting clumsy, fingers stiff, flexibility need a touch up? I have ways of dealing with any area of my playing that may be slipping.
I guess your teaching is pretty important to you? You have been at VCU since 2002 and also a visiting professor at the RNCM – have you found that your teaching methods and emphases have changed a lot over the years?
Yes, while I feel most comfortable and confident in my work as a performer/composer, I really enjoy teaching and feel that I have drawn tremendous personal and musical benefit from working with students, as well as from my long tenure at VCU and my association with other schools. I was International Tutor in Trumpet at the RNCM from 2012-2015 and have been back several times since, to teach and to perform. I really love that place! It’s bristling with musical energy.
For sure, things have changed over the years. When I started teaching, I understood almost nothing about the mechanics of playing; I have always simply found exercises that allowed me to develop skills without considering what I was doing with my lips, tongue, breathing etc. To this day, I feel that this is still a bit of a blind spot for me; I don’t entirely understand “how” I play but I can tell you which I exercises I practiced to get there! So, virtually everything I know about the mechanics of playing the trumpet is through teaching, not through my own playing. On the other hand, I feel I’m pretty good at teaching people how to structure a practice routine.
I still find that I can’t always diagnose student embouchure issues with perfect confidence, so I turn to some of my colleagues, in particular Taylor Barnett and Kevin Maloney at VCU, to help with that. I don’t pretend to be a “master” teacher and don’t tout my students’ accomplishments, which I feel are wholly their own; I simply want to help every musician that I can, and am very happy to enlist the assistance of wiser pedagogues whenever I feel that will benefit a particular student.
What are the key things that young aspiring players should concentrate on?
Get your fundamentals together and be a good musician.
That is, spend the time to acquire the skills required of every trumpeter (healthy/efficient sound production, flexibility in every register, articulation, fingers, etc.), then commit wholly to becoming the best interpreter of music that you can, whether you want to play in an orchestra, improvise, play with rock/pop/folk groups, or any combination of any genres. Remember that people should feelsomething in response to our performances, so as you learn to play expressively – and to master the nuances of what that means in any particular context – you have to stay tuned in to your own emotional connection with music as a listener. I don’t care about my own feelings while I perform; indeed, I always play best when my heart and mind are quiet. However, I want to play in such a fashion that the listenercan have a special experience, will feel moved, or uplifted from hearing the music. If that doesn’t happen, then all my practicing is for naught.
I learned this by simply observing my own emotions when I listen. Being overwhelmed while listening to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde,or just by the sound of Coltrane’s saxophone or Inari George’s voice…this is a powerful thing, and I want to my make my own small contributions to music lovers’ experiences.
Most enjoyable project?
Actually, this is a Manchester story! I’ve had a myriad of enjoyable projects of course but playing at Band on the Wall in 2012 with the jazz bands from Chetham’s School of Music really stands out for me. It was the perfect night…the kids were astonishing, as they always seem to be at Chet’s, and we were all – performers and audience alike – completely swept up in the excitement, indeed the magic, of sharing that music. Yes, performing with young students turned out to be one of the most musically satisfying experiences of my career!
Proudest professional moment?
I’d have to say that’s quite recent: I played with Doc Severinsen and the Indiana Wind Symphony in mid-March. Doc heard me play a new concerto by Allen Vizzutti the night before on a different concert, then another new concerto (by the RNCM’s own Andy Scott) on the concert we shared…and we played together too. Doc had incredibly kind words about my playing; I was stunned and humbled by his reaction. It was deeply validating!
What have you got coming up that you are most looking forward to?
These are busy times! Tomorrow morning, I fly to Minnesota to play as soloist with the Adam Meckler Jazz Orchestra, and then on to Wisconsin for a residency at Lawrence Conservatoire. This will be followed by a concert with the Motor City Brass Band in Detroit, then a residency in Austria, doing several jazz concerts (including a trumpet summit with Austrian virtuosos Thomas Gansch and Daniel Nösig); then back to Michigan to work with the Brass Band of Battle Creek, and then off to perform a couple of concertos at the ITG Conference in San Antonio. So….that gets me to the end of May!
My big news is that I’ve got a new CD coming out in mid-May: Freedom of Movement: 21stCentury Trumpet Concertos, featuring the aforementioned works by Vizzutti and Andy Scott, as well as Tony Plog’s Concerto for Trumpet and Brass Band and Jim Stephenson’s “Rextreme” Concerto. That was a lot of work for a multitude of people (recorded in four cites on three continents), and I’m very excited about it!
Thanks for this Rex, and I am looking forward to seeing you at the ITG Conference next month! Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Just wanted to thank you wholeheartedly for thinking about me, John!
For further information about Rex including upcoming concerts and projects, please visit rexrichardson.net