Interview with Brian Shaw

Interview for Trumpet Journey on December 3, 2012. Stanley Curtis is interviewer. 

Brian Shaw
Photo by Debbie Timmons

Brian Shaw is Assistant Professor of Trumpet and Jazz Studies at Louisiana State University and is Co-Principal Trumpet of the Dallas Wind Symphony.  As a Baroque trumpet player, Shaw has recorded a solo CD titled Virtuoso Concertos for Clarino, accompanied by some of New York’s finest period musicians.  Early Music America declares: “Shaw’s tone is beautiful, and his playing unfailingly musical… His is a voice that will make a major mark on Baroque trumpet playing.”

On valved trumpet, Shaw has been a prizewinner in a number of international competitions and is the dedicatee of several new worksHe is also very active as a jazz improviser and big-band arranger.

This season, Shaw will perform concerts in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Santa Fe, Oklahoma, and will begin service as a consultant to the new Kenny Wheeler Archive at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Website: www.bshawmusic.com

Interview

SC: What is your background as a musician? Did you have any influential teachers or other early influences?

BDS:  I come from Carmi, a small town in southeastern Illinois.  I started trumpet in the fourth grade, having not really been musical up to that point.  There are no musicians in my immediate family (apart from my maternal grandmother who loves big band music and played the clarinet in high school, and my paternal grandfather who liked to sing and played the harmonica), and so being interested in music made me a bit of an outlier.  Anyway, I had an enthusiastic grade school band teacher, Mr. Steve Bell, who started me on trumpet, and he gave me what I recognize now to be a good set of fundamentals.  He is from Michigan, and is still playing very well, with a beautiful sound.  I never had to make a serious embouchure change because I got such a good start from him.  He also was very passionate about music, especially jazz, and so he gave me recordings I knew nothing about and took me to hear concerts in the area.  I remember, when I was in high school, he once drove a trombone-playing friend and me overnight all the way from Carmi to the Chicago suburbs just to hear Arturo Sandoval play.  Now that’s dedication!

Even though they aren’t musicians, my patient parents always supported my attempts (as bad as I sounded) at making music.  They drove me to rehearsals, concerts, summer camps hours away, etc.  I wasn’t in a city large enough to have a teacher, so, other than the occasional lessons and duet sessions I had with Mr. Bell, I was otherwise self-taught, until my late high school years.  By that point, I had started going to summer jazz camps at the University of Illinois, where I met Tom Birkner and Jeff Helgesen, and at Eastern Illinois University, where I also worked with Tom, and the man who was my first college trumpet teacher, Dr. Parker Melvin.

Parker taught me a lot about sound production and efficiency, introduced me to lots of new repertoire, was patient with all my idiosyncrasies, and very supportive.  James Thompson was a big influence as well and did more than just about anyone to teach me about how the instrument actually works.  He also was a great mentor, and sitting next to someone like him, who had played on so many incredible recordings, was a constant inspiration.  He also taught me how to make several authentic Mexican dishes, and to make a great Caesar salad!  When I went to the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a Doctoral degree, I was reunited with Mr. Ray Sasaki, who I studied with from time to time several years before when we were both in Illinois.  I learned lots of performing and teaching repertoire from Ray, and he turned me on to lots of great jazz players I’d never investigated, like Booker Little and Kenny Dorham.  Ray also taught me more than anyone else how to be a well-rounded player, a good colleague, and a university teacher.  He helped me navigate the ins and outs of auditioning/interviewing for a collegiate position as well, which is something I can never fully repay him for!

 

SC: When did you know that the trumpet was your calling?

BDS:  This will seem funny, but I actually remember the day (if not the date) – it was when Maynard Ferguson came to Evansville, Indiana in 1988. At the time, I was 3rd or 4th chair in our little middle school band, and wasn’t really getting much better.  Mr. Bell took us to see him, and of course, none of us knew who this man with the funny sounding name was.  That night, there were two open seats in the front row.  My friend and I sat right in front of his bell!  As soon as I heard that sound, I knew I had to figure out how to play the trumpet in some way.  Of course, for me, in middle school and high school, that only meant learning to play high notes!  Since again, I didn’t have a lot of private mentoring, my “practicing” during that period consisted of taking my tape player out to the garage and playing along with Maynard, Arturo, Chuck Mangione, and eventually [once I found out who he was] Clifford Brown and playing along with the recordings until I couldn’t make a sound anymore.  I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.  For as many “bad” habits as I developed, in many ways, I’m thankful for that time of my life, when those trumpet titans were my “teachers”!  I still learn very aurally, and was slow to develop sight-reading skills.

SC: Who do you listen to now?

BDS: I’m a bit of a vinyl freak, so a lot of my listening is on LPs.  Some of my listening is determined by what I’m playing or teaching at the moment, but my students have done great things for keeping my ears from molding over.  One of my jazz students just turned me on to Christian Scott, whose playing I immediately loved, and we just had Robert Glasper (pianist) come to LSU, and through that visit I have grown to really like him a great deal.  I’ve become a bit of a Louis Armstrong devotee over the last couple of years, because I honestly didn’t know that much of his playing outside of the famous Hot Five/Hot Sevens recordings and his late popular vocal recordings, and so I have recently discovered some of my favorite playing of his on the Decca records from the 30s and his later Columbia albums, like Satch Plays Fats and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. I love Steve Reich, and have been listening to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes since a friend at Eastman turned me on to them.  I also listen to a lot of singers, like Sandrine Piau, who has a stunning record of Mozart Arias with the Freiburg Barokorchester.  The music I turn on when I just want to relax and listen, though, consists of a fair amount of pop music from the 60s and 70s, like the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, and my favorite guy who is very active currently writing songs and recording, Ben Folds.

Some YouTube Examples of Brian Shaw’s Favorites: 

Sandrine Piau singing Mozart’s “Ah, se in ciel”

 

SC: If you were on a proverbial desert island, what ten recordings would you take with you?

BDS: Wow – that’s a tough one. Although I could probably listen to these albums in my head – which means I could take other recordings I don’t know as well – I would still probably be able to survive (musically speaking) on these:

1. Kenny Wheeler: Music for Small and Large Ensembles

2. J.S. Bach: Cello Suites, played by Peter Wispelwey

3. Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens

4. Vivaldi, Four Seasons, played by the Freiburg Barokorchester [this example by I Musici]

5. The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One: Clark Terry

6. Maria Schneider: Hang Gliding from the album Allegresse

7. Ellington: The Great Paris Concert [this example, Perdido is on this recording]

8. Joni Mitchell: Hejira

9. Miles Davis/Gil Evans: Miles Ahead

10. Joe Williams with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra

 

SC: What’s your typical day like, teaching at LSU?

BDS: I don’t necessarily have a typical day at LSU – every weekday is different. In general, though, I teach most of the trumpet lessons on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, since Tuesdays and Thursdays are when the jazz groups I oversee rehearse.  I teach 13 trumpet majors right now (from freshmen to DMA level).  I also direct the LSU Jazz Ensemble, oversee the Jazz Lab Band, coach a jazz chamber group (combo), plus teach several jazz lessons and teach applied and classroom jazz arranging as needed.  So, one hour I might be working with a freshman out of Clarke or Arban; the next, I might be conducting a piece by Maria Schneider with the Jazz Ensemble; and in another, I might be working with one of my grad students on Baroque trumpet.  This schedule might seem schizophrenic to some people, but I like the constant variety!

 

SC: Tell me about your experience playing with the Dallas Wind Symphony?

BDS: It’s a great joy to play with them.  I usually go up to Dallas once a month for a concert.  We generally rehearse on Saturday, all day Sunday, and Monday, and then give the concert on Tuesday night.  It’s a tight schedule, but I really enjoy the challenge of preparing a full concert quickly.  I was fortunate enough to play with the DWS’s Artistic Director and conductor Jerry Junkin when I was doing my DMA at UT, and so it was through him that I first was able to play with them.  Jerry is one of the finest musicians I have ever known, and I have learned a great deal about what it is to be a true professional from him.  He is a class act in every way!  Back to the DWS – the first opportunity I had to play with them was on the recording sessions for an album of Maslanka’s Symphony No. 4 and other works.  We all seemed to hit it off pretty quickly on those sessions.  Then a year or so later, while I was still at UT, one of the DWS trumpets was unfortunately suddenly stricken with Bell’s Palsy, just a few days before the band was to play a featured concert at the Midwest Clinic. I had played much of the repertoire for that concert (including Corigliano’s Circus Maximus) under Jerry’s baton, so they asked me to cover his part for that concert.  (By the way, he’s much better now and playing great again!)   I took the audition a bit later, when Lyman Brodie retired from the group, and was fortunate enough to win the Co-Principal position, along with my friend and colleague Tim Andersen.  I love playing wind band music – more than playing in an orchestra – and so it’s been a fulfillment of a life-long dream play with this fantastic group for the past 5 years.

Masklanka, Symphony No. 4, Dallas Wind Symphony

 

SC: What other groups do you play with?

BDS: One of the best parts of my job at LSU is that they encourage me to play in various places in order to recruit and to continue to develop as a performer and teacher.  I have played for the past few summers with the Austin-based choral ensemble Conspirare, and the Victoria [TX] Bach Festival, both of which are conducted by Craig Hella Johnson.  I’m starting to do more work with Santa Fe Pro Musica when they need a Baroque trumpeter.  I’ve also played occasionally with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, Music City Baroque in Nashville, Spire Chamber Ensemble in Kansas City, and jazz with lots of other great groups here and there.

 

SC: Tell me about the works you have commissioned (and about premiering these works!). How do you get a commission to work out?

BDS: I have been lucky to count several terrific composers as my friends, so I haven’t actually commissioned that much music – it’s been a transaction more like: “If you write new works for the trumpet, I’ll perform and record them”!  Most recently, I had the fortune to have my friend and colleague, Brett William Dietz [Associate Prof. of Percussion at LSU] write what I think is a fresh, exciting, and very challenging concerto for trumpet and wind ensemble, called Redshift for me.  We premiered it with the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 2010, with conductor Mark Scatterday, and have also played it here with the LSU Wind Ensemble and in Dallas with the Wind Symphony, with Jerry Junkin conducting. I did a project about 6 years ago with my dear friend, the late pianist and Eastern Illinois University professor W. David Hobbs (who died of cancer in 2007), where we asked our friends to write new pieces for us.  One of those is a beautiful and quite difficult sonata by Los Angeles composer Mike Hay.  Another is a forward-looking work by Jonathan Schwabe (University of Northern Iowa) called Duo Sonatine.  I did commission Joseph Turrin to write an unaccompanied piece, called Two Images, for flügelhorn and trumpet.  I also composed a couple of pieces for the project.  We were in the process of recording those works when David became ill, and couldn’t finish the recording.  David was so dedicated to our collaboration that I felt that sometimes he practiced the music as much or even more than I did!  We played together all over the US, and in England and France.  He played with me when I went to the Maurice André competition in 2000 and for ITG in 2001 and for Ellsworth Smith in 2004.  I always felt a little guilty, since having David with me was such an unfair advantage in competitions – even if I didn’t always sound good – he did!  Since he died, I’ve just not been able to play those new pieces with anyone else.  I think the time is coming, though, when I’ll have enough distance from the pain of his loss that I’ll be able to revisit these great new pieces, with my fantastic collaborator, my LSU colleague Willis Delony, and dedicate the recording to David’s memory.

Premiere of Redshift, by Brett William Dietz with the Eastman Wind Ensemble

 

SC: You’re a lead and jazz player. What is that like for you? How do you prepare for that?

BDS: We have a great summer jazz series here at LSU, called “Hot Summer Nights and Cool Jazz” that my colleague [bassist] Bill Grimes began over 10 years ago.  We’re joined by my other jazz colleague, [pianist] Willis Delony and our friend [drummer] Troy Davis as we present six concerts every summer with various guest artists from the area and around the country.  That series is a real highlight of the year, and our performances consistently fill the house with our loyal fan base.  I don’t play lead as much as I’d like to these days, because I’ve been doing a lot of other things, but occasionally, I’ll play lead on a pops gig with an orchestra or with the Dallas Wind Symphony on a holiday or Valentine’s Day pops concert.  To prepare for that, I don’t do anything special, other than making sure I’m in really good shape before I go the first rehearsal!

 

SC: I understand that you have studied Kenny Wheeler’s playing. How did you go about learning his ideas and style, and how did you incorporate that into your own playing?

BDS: Kenny’s playing and writing has been an enormous influence on my musical development.  His sound is so distinctive that he is one of the few jazz trumpeters, along with Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and maybe Roy Eldridge, that I can recognize immediately after hearing only one note.  I first heard him when I was a freshman at Eastern Illinois, when my jazz teacher Mark Maegdlin was leading a seminar on the music of Keith Jarrett.  We listened to Kenny’s record Gnu High, and I just lost it – I just had never heard a trumpet sound like that.  From that moment I was hooked, and was eventually lucky enough to meet him and study with him in Canada at the Banff Centre, and eventually become friends with my hero.  It’s pretty surreal!  Anyway, I have transcribed many of Kenny’s solos, and have played several of his compositions.  I have to admit that I was so into Kenny’s playing (and still am!) that whenever I would play one of his tunes, I would unconsciously tend to try to sound like him.  Whenever this happens, of course, I always pale in comparison to the real deal.  This phenomenon seems to happen with other people, too, with Kenny’s music more than that of anyone else, for some reason.  I’m not sure, but maybe it’s because Kenny’s sound and style is so perfectly suited to his compositions; that maybe the “melancholy chaos” and lyricism of his burnished, fat, trumpet and flügelhorn sound is just the right match for his harmonically complex, yet perfectly balanced and graceful tunes.

Kenny Wheeler: “Smatter”

 

SC: But you do much more than jazz. You are an incredibly versatile musician, being a classical trumpet player and an awesome baroque trumpet soloist. Why did you start playing the baroque trumpet?

BDS: Thanks – that means a lot!  I guess that after years of being given “the hand” by conductors when playing piccolo on Baroque period works, I just grew frustrated.  At the time, I was in undergrad and not really aware of period instruments being used – that’s how naïve I was!  However, I ran into Andrew Naumann at an ITG conference, and he had a display booth for his Baroque trumpets.  He explained the basics of how they work to me, I tried one out, and I was instantly hooked.  I also bought a couple of Niklas Eklund’s early Art of the Baroque Trumpet recordings from him – which had just come out at the time – and everything just suddenly made sense.  I bought a Baroque trumpet from Naumann and started working on it at Eastman when I got there the next year to start a Masters.  Eastman has a great early music department, of course, led by the incomparable Paul O’Dette, who inspired me and taught me a great deal about the basics of Historically Informed Performance in his Performance Practice course. I played in Collegium for him, and met Kristian Bezuidenhout (who was a student at the time) through Paul and a mutual friend.  Kris is now a very successful concert artist internationally, recording with some of the groups that he and I used to listen to in his living room!  I learned so much from both Paul and Kris.  They also told me that I needed to study with John Thiessen in New York, who is one of the very finest Baroque trumpeters in the world, and who studied at ESM with Paul.  John taught me a great deal, and has always been very generous with his time, and was kind enough to put me in contact with several of the people I now play with fairly regularly.

 

SC: How did your CD of baroque trumpet music come about?

BDS: That’s another funny story.  I was practicing Baroque trumpet in my living room here in Baton Rouge one day, and using my cell phone to record my practice.  For whatever reason, a memory popped into my head of my former teacher Jim Thompson playing [on piccolo trumpet] the peak phrase from the first movement of the Richter Concerto.  I decided I would try it on my Baroque trumpet, and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, it came out pretty well.  As a joke, I sent this cell phone recording to John Thiessen, who, by this point had become a good friend.  He wrote back a few minutes later, saying “You should record this!” and that’s what started the whole thing.  From there, I decided to center my lecture recital for my DMA at UT (which I was still working on) on the Richter, and, through that research, I found that the Library of Congress owned the manuscripts to the Richter and three other concertos in a group called the “Fulda Collection”.  I recorded three of those four concerti [Anonymous/Stamitz, Richter, and Riepel], plus the Michael Haydn Concertino, on the CD.  After I finished my degree, I applied for an LSU Summer Research Stipend grant, which, along with some help for junior faculty from the LSU School of Music, helped pay to make the recording.  Since John does a good bit of contracting in New York, my proposal was to have him assemble an orchestra of period instrumentalists for the recording, and that I would go up to NY in June of 2008 to record the CD with them.  It was a ton of work, but it’s something I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to complete.

Brian Shaw playing Franz Xaver Richter’s Concerto à 5 (mvt. I)

 

SC: How do you practice and prepare for upcoming concerts? How do you maintain your versatility?

BDS: I try to have a routine that keeps me in a good general shape for just about any type of playing.  That includes some work from Jim Thompson’s Buzzing Book, which gets me pretty warmed up, then I do some finger work from Clarke, articulation patterns from Arban, I play 2-octave scales for range preservation and extension, some routines from the Bai Lin Lip Flexibilities, attack practice from Shuebruk’s Lip Trainers, and, if I’m playing high/loud a lot, I usually do some very soft “ghost” tones using patterns from the first page of Schlossberg.  When I’m playing a good bit of Baroque trumpet, I have patterns and routines given to me by John that I do without using holes, plus some principale patterns from the Edward Tarr Art of Baroque Trumpet Playing, Book I, and some Fantini Toccatas that go all the way down to the lowest “C” on the trumpet.   This may seem like a lot, but I only do a few exercises out of each, so as to hit every technical aspect I need but not play so much I’ve burned out all my chops or all my free time, and can’t get to working on any music.

I’ve recently discovered (through Tom Hooten, who recommended it on Facebook) an app for iPhone or iPad called “Seconds Pro”, which is a fitness interval timer.  I use it to make sure that I’m putting enough space in my practice.  When I’m learning a new piece, I like to do 10 successful repetitions of any given phrase or passage in a row before moving on.  This app helps with that, and you can set it to play for 10 seconds, or a minute, or whatever, and then rest for the same (or a different) amount of time.  By doing this, I have noticed a huge improvement in the efficiency of my practicing, in clarifying my goals, and, probably most significantly of all, the strength I can build by practicing this way – on and off – for several hours.  It really helps build endurance and efficiency, and I believe it’s because you’re getting the blood back into the lips on a more regular basis.  Many times, I’ve practiced carelessly, without stopping for several minutes, barely taking the horn off my chops, and then I wonder why I’m tired after only a few minutes.  This app has really helped me – and my students who have checked it out – with those issues.  I’ve seen notable improvement from them as well!  If I hadn’t been using this app, I’m not sure how I could have made it through the Fisher Tull Concerto no. 2 we just performed here at LSU in November.

Video of live performance of Tull, Concerto No. 2, mvt. I

SC: So, basically, you can do ANYTHING!! Do you have time for anything else besides trumpet playing?

Paula Shaw with Sally
Photo by Shelby Lewis

BDS: Ha, ha! Well, I’m not so sure I can do anything!  You should ask our poor dogs, who hear all my unsuccessful attempts at home when practicing.   I do spend as much time as I can with my wife, Paula, who is busier than I am doing amazing work saving lives here in Baton Rouge working at our animal shelter.  Outside of music, though, my other passions include drawing and oil painting, which I’ve done longer than playing the trumpet, and I cooking.  I’m not the best baker in the world, but I really enjoy the creative and temporary nature of cooking.  As long as the food is good, your work is always appreciated!  I’m a bit of an amateur astronomer, but haven’t been very active lately.  Also, I’ve recently discovered a new obsession probably more frustrating (and addictive) than playing the trumpet: golf!  The good thing about golf is that I’m so bad at it that I can’t possibly get too attached to the results of my playing, because I’d just quit.  It’s something – unlike trumpet – that, even when it goes badly, I still have a lot of fun… probably because I don’t identify myself as a golfer – which is a good thing!

 

SC: Okay. How many dogs do you REALLY have?

Clockwise from top left: Sally, Lucky, Toby, Fancy, Sassy, and Milo
Photo by Brian Shaw

Tiny
Photo by Paula Shaw

BDS: We have eight, and all of them were rescued from a shelter.  In order of appearance: Sally (our first, who is a schnauzer/poodle mix, we think), Toby (who we believe is a chihuahua/dachshund/poodle mix, weighs about 10 pounds, and has nine lives, having survived Parvo as a puppy and being hit by an SUV a year later), Lucky and Milo (our cocker spaniels), Sassy (an aptly named Yorkie, short for Sassafras, who has 3 legs due to an accident, the details of which we’re not sure of), Fancy (our less-than-fear-inspiring pit bull, who is the sweetest dog of the bunch), Scooter (our Frisbee athlete) and Tiny (the 200-pound English Mastiff).  Like I said, my wife works at the shelter.  For a while there, she was bringing her work home with her… and we’d feed it, and give it a name!  Seriously, though, I love these creatures.  We don’t have any kids yet, so they’re what we call our “furry children”.

Thanks, Stan, for this great opportunity to talk with you – I really am humbled that you took the time to interview me!

 

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