Daniel Rosenboom: A Pioneer Spirit

by Troy Collins

Daniel Rosenboom and Dan Schnelle                                                                     Courtesy of Alex Chaloff

Los Angeles-based trumpet player and composer Daniel Rosenboom is a rising presence in the creative West Coast scene, having established his reputation performing with Vinny Golia, Harris Eisenstadt and his father, the renowned composer David Rosenboom, as well as a slew of bands including Killsonic, RootSystem and The Industrial Jazz Group. An ambitious member of the up-and-coming generation, Rosenboom engages in myriad musical activities: he leads an electrified quintet and acoustic sextet in addition to the “hardcore-Balkan-jazz-rock” group PLOTZ! and the “spontaneous composition” jazz-rock group DR. MiNT; works as a freelance session musician recording film scores and video game soundtracks; regularly performs with regional orchestras in the greater Los Angeles area; and accompanies multi-platinum singer Josh Groban on his international tours.

Rosenboom has released six full-length albums under his own name since 2006 and more with PLOTZ! and DR. MiNT. His most recent effort is Fire Keeper, the studio debut of his heavily amplified quintet with multi-reedist Gavin Templeton, electric guitarist Alexander Noice, tap guitar virtuoso Kai Kurosawa and drummer Dan Schnelle. Effortlessly blending genres as divergent as heavy metal and pre-war swing, the recording is the first on his own label, Orenda Records, an imprint intended to promote the efforts of his local community of musicians. In similar fashion, Rosenboom founded Creative Underground Los Angeles in 2013, a collective of multi-disciplinary artists dedicated to documenting Los Angeles’ experimental art scene.


Troy Collins: Let’s start at the beginning. Your father is the composer David Rosenboom. I was wondering how his aesthetic ideas may have effected your own development as a musician?

Daniel Rosenboom: Growing up in an environment of creative experimentalism definitely made its mark on my whole outlook on life. Actually, both of my parents are creative musicians/artists – my mother, Jacqueline Humbert, was a core member of the late Robert Ashley’s opera company. And most of my parents’ friends were all avant-garde artists and musicians as well.

As far back as I can remember, experimentation and pushing the boundaries of art and music was the norm. One of my very first musical memories, when I was about 2 years old, was sitting on the floor of Anthony Braxton’s house playing cars or action figures with his sons Tyondai and Donari, while Anthony and my dad were jamming. I remember looking up at what seemed like a massive golden saxophone making the most incredible sound I’d ever heard and just being mesmerized!

For my entire childhood our house was filled with bizarre and amazing music and the conversations and hangs always centered around life in the avant-garde. To me, it all just seemed normal. It was just what my parents did. It was only later that I realized that most kids weren’t listening to wild electronic music and having dinner conversations with people like Robert Ashley, Anthony Braxton, and Morton Subotnick.

In a weird way, I actually “rebelled” toward classical music. I grew up playing classical piano, and then later was super into orchestral music, especially the late romantic through mid-20th Century composers. Something about the raw emotionalism mixed with the traditionally crafted approach to this music just seemed incredible to me. Stravinsky became my hero, and I’d stay up at night with headphones, a flashlight, and a score trying to conduct along with “The Rite of Spring.” And then there was rock ‘n’ roll ...

The rock flame ignited when I first heard Jimi Hendrix. And that was something my dad and I definitely agreed on. I remember him getting all excited to pull out his old LP collection and share Hendrix, the Stones, the Beatles, James Brown – the classics! And my friends all dug that music too. I got super into Nirvana, and then later Zeppelin, Zappa, and heavier stuff like Meshuggah.

After training hard for an orchestral trumpet career through college, I came to a fork in the road that led me back to a more experimental side of myself. I was somehow ready to come back to the aesthetic I grew up in, and really try to find my own voice as an artist.

I think the thing that I inherited from my parents is a true sense of artistic adventure. I’ve never been afraid of experimenting or making something that sounds “weird” or “different.” I mean, everything I heard as a kid sounded weird and different. I’ve always strived to do something new with everything that I write – keeps me on my toes, and keeps me excited! More so than any particular aesthetic, a pioneer spirit is what I got from my parents.

TC: Your resume includes everything from work on film scores and video game soundtracks to performing with symphony orchestras and jazz bands. Considering your trumpet playing is the common denominator, how do you negotiate the inherent stylistic differences that these various settings present?

DR: To me, it’s all about sound. In any of those contexts, you need to be able to deliver the appropriate sound for the moment. In essence, that’s what you need to do while improvising as well. So, in my practice, I concentrate on being able to create any sound I can hear, as well as play anything I can think of or read. And believe me, that’s a never-ending pursuit!

Also, if one decides to make a living as a freelance musician, you really have no choice. You never know what you’ll be asked to do, and you never have any time to prepare. That’s what’s so incredible about the Hollywood studio musicians and so challenging about working in that environment. Sometimes you don’t see the part until seconds before the red light comes on, and you have to deliver. No matter what!

Good sound and technique transcends style. Sure there are idiosyncrasies inherent to any musical idiom, but you can navigate them if you know how they should sound. I’m not claiming to be an expert in all musical styles – far from it. But I’m an adaptable musician, and I’m always working to improve.

TC: On a similar topic, you’ve toured with multi-platinum singer Josh Groban as his trumpet soloist. How did the tour with Groban come about?

DR: Well, that literally fell from the sky. I was sitting on my couch in a particularly dire financial moment, thinking to myself, “I really need a big gig.” The phone rang, and it was Josh’s musical director. They needed a trumpet player quickly, and I had come very highly recommended. So I flew out mid-tour and joined the band!

Since then, Josh has been a huge supporter. Within a few shows of joining the group, they tried me out on a solo number with Josh and the pianist. I got one run-through in the sound check and they put it in the show that night at the United Center in Chicago ... in front of 15,000 people. “Nervous” doesn’t even do it justice – I literally thought my heart would explode out of my chest. But it went well, and they kept the solo in every show for the rest of the tour. Then when we were off the road, Josh came out to see my band PLOTZ! play at a dive bar in Hollywood – I thought that was pretty damn cool. And he’s kept me on as a soloist and found ways to integrate me into the band ever since. He even made a generous contribution to my recent crowd-funding campaign to finance the latest Quintet record, Fire Keeper. As far as bosses go, I’d say he’s pretty awesome!

TC: Groban sounds like he’s been very supportive of your efforts. How has working with Vinny Golia been, in comparison?

DR: Vinny has been more than a mentor, and colleague – he’s been almost more like family. I would have to say that Vinny Golia is perhaps my strongest influence as a mentor and musician. When I started studying with Vinny in my first semester as a grad student at CalArts, he completely opened my world up and helped me make the leap from classical musician to improviser very quickly. The detail and inventiveness in is compositions and the raw fire of his improvisations were nothing less than an astonishing combination to me - one that I really wanted to emulate. I have dedicated a lot of my personal and professional development to performing his music, and as a composer and improviser, I constantly strive for that potent combination.

Vinny has been a supporter of mine since before I was his student. While I was still an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, I had expressed interest in doing a contemporary classical solo CD of all new commissioned works, and Vinny was the first, besides my dad, to write me a piece – he actually gave it to me at my parents’ holiday party during my senior year! And he was more than happy to release my first record, as well as two others, on his label, Nine Winds Records.

But really, over the last decade, Vinny has been one of my most consistent supporters, and a constant mentor. I’ve been playing with him for literally a decade, and have learned more about music and life from him than almost any other single teacher. So, truly, I would not be the musician or person I am today without Vinny’s guidance and influence. And I feel extremely lucky for that.

TC: You currently work with a number of established groups, including Golia’s Sextet, the Modern Brass Quintet, your own Quintet and Septet, PLOTZ! and DR. MiNT. What are the benefits and/or challenges of simultaneously working in so many different configurations?

DR: Well, it certainly keeps you on your toes! But beyond that, it definitely provides endless inspiration. Playing in so many different styles and with such a variety of GREAT musicians fuels my practicing, always keeps me writing and experimenting, and pushes me to become a better musician. It also allows for a continuous dialog with the other musicians, and that keeps everything moving forward. It can be a scheduling challenge for sure, but all in all, it feels very fulfilling.

In a way, I realized a long time ago that I would never be satisfied doing just one thing. That’s created this sort of wildly dynamic musical life that has me bouncing around wearing many different hats, but I really love it. And beyond that, I love working with all these people. There’s definitely overlap in the musicians in the groups as well. It’s a chance for us to do our thing in a variety of contexts, and develop our ideas together. For instance, Gavin Templeton plays woodwinds in both of my groups, PLOTZ!, DR. MiNT and Golia’s group. And we live across the street from each other. As a trumpet/alto pair, we’ve pushed each other for the better part of a decade to go farther and deeper into the sound. There’s nothing better than having colleagues and friends who will push you beyond what you considered possible.

TC: Your writing incorporates elements culled from a variety of styles, ranging from Balkan brass bands to heavy metal. How do you balance the idiomatic differences intrinsic to each specific style in your compositions?

DR: I don’t really. All these various influences and styles are just floating around in my head because I like a lot of different music. I can only really write what I hear, and I suppose all these things simmer in my brain and come out like a sort of stew ...

In technical terms, I think the thing that tends to be a consistent thread is the appreciation for odd dance rhythms. One thing that I really love about Balkan music is the juxtaposition of rhythmic groupings of 2s and 3s, which create basically lopsided dance beats. Stravinsky did a very similar thing rhythmically, but extended it way beyond repeating cycles into a more free-flowing, “bouncy” linear-rhythmic concept. I really like that and I definitely use that. Most of the time, when I write a melody or riff or bass line, I write it without meter. Then I figure out groupings of notes, and then apply meters later.

On a sonic level, I really love the sound of heavy drums and distorted guitars. To me, rather than being an aggressive sound, it’s just exciting! So, a lot of my music incorporates those elements of rock, as well as certain riff-oriented writing. I also really love dense harmonic concepts, especially coming out of Messaien, but I find I have to distill a lot of those concepts to their essence in order to adapt them for the instrumentation I tend to use.

More and more lately, I’m tending toward a certain “tunefulness” in melodic writing. I used to write much more complex melodies, but lately I’ve been airing toward a simpler concept. I think it’s really cool when you can make something that’s complex underneath yet melodic and memorable enough to get stuck in your head. But who knows ... I’ll probably swing the other way again soon.

TC: Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

DR: This totally depends on the project. The majority of the music I’ve written has been written for specific bands or people, so I would tend to say “yes.” But there have certainly been pieces that have been written in a more open way, as well as a more “classically” rigid way.

With the most recent group, the Quintet, I can get very specific. These guys understand my language in a way that allows me to throw them more complex stuff on the written side, but more open stuff on the improvised side. Gavin and I have played so much together that I barely need to write a rhythm for a melody. I can literally just write dots on a page and play them how I hear them, and he’ll be right there with me. I can say to Alexander Noice, “do some electronic stuff here,” and he’ll do something way cooler than I can imagine myself, let alone just ripping on the guitar. Kai Kurosawa can literally play anything I can put in front of him, and can fill a variety of roles – his instrument handles the bass part as well as chordal or melodic material, or he can join the electronic sonic world with Alexander. I can get super specific with Dan Schnelle about where to place the kick drum in a riff, but still allow him the space to experiment and try his own thing within that.

All in all, I think it’s really important to know the people you’re writing for, and writing to peoples’ strengths is just smart. Writing in the abstract is a great exercise in developing compositional ideas, but for me the only reason to compose is to play with people or to hear your music played. And when you write to your players’ strengths, it gives them the opportunity to shine while playing your music. That’s pure symbiosis, and it creates lasting musical relationships.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

DR: I approach studio recording and live performance as totally distinct mediums. Of course they’re related – you want a studio recording to feel and sound as fluid and natural as a live performance, and you want a live performance to be tight and balanced like a studio recording. But I think each has its merits and purpose, and it’s best to treat them as different processes and experiences.

For me, everything comes back to live performance. It’s my favorite way to experience music, both as a player and as an audience member. The raw energy and expanded consciousness you can experience on the bandstand is unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in my life.

Studio recording, by nature, is a different experience. There are brilliant classic albums, especially in jazz, that capture the way a band plays live. But generally speaking, I think of the studio as an instrument in itself, and you should use what it provides – otherwise, you could just record a live performance.

One thing I think about when going into the studio, is about how to capture the music in a way that warrants repeated listens over time. The best albums are those you come back to again and again and find something new each time. You put them on because you’re in a mood, and maybe you discover something new in the music, or maybe even in yourself.

With the latest album, Fire Keeper, we wanted to approach the studio recording in a more “rock” kind of way, and make an album that had that “classic” quality. The band is inherently a live band, but when you listen to instrumental music on recording, it doesn’t always translate the same way as hearing it live. Solos tend to seem longer on record, and grooves and textures need to be moving and changing in order to maintain interest. It’s a lot harder to pull an audience into a meditative headspace with a groove cycle on a recording than it is live. With those things in mind, we thought carefully about how we wanted to arc the tunes, how long we wanted certain sections to be, and how we wanted to approach transitions from one section to another. While we based each track on a complete live take, we had some fun with overlaying extra guitar textures and electronic sounds. We didn’t go crazy with stuff like that, because the music is intended for live performance. But we definitely had some fun.

In general, you have to think about the different experience of being a live audience member and a record listener. They’re very different ways to experience music, and so you should at least consider that when approaching either medium.

TC: As a label proprietor, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

DR: I’m not particularly interested in trying to compete in the “industry.” The music that interests us most is creative, original, experimental music in a variety of genres, and most of that will never really be part of the mainstream discussion. The reason to create the label was to bring together like-minded musicians who are all doing great work independently in a place where we can all create a rising tide for each other.

That said, I think we actually have an advantage. Our target audience is the community that really loves the “ritual of listening.” By that, I mean the people who put a record on to experience the journey of it, not simply as a soundtrack for their daily activities. To be sure, it’s great to listen to music while you’re doing other things. But there’s something about the experience of taking the record off the shelf, looking at the artwork, opening it, pulling the LP or CD out, putting it on, reading about the work, and really listening to it – that’s a ritual we want to preserve.

The people who engage in this kind of listening tend to prefer physical copies of music. So, our business model is pretty simple: keep our inventory low, quality high, and try to reach the people who really want our music. Of course the music will always be available digitally – it’s an unavoidable reality of our time, and also an important way for our artists to expand their visibility and careers. But when you only have to move a few hundred copies of a record, the physical side of the market doesn’t seem so daunting.

On a more philosophical note, I feel like there’s a general movement toward having more complete interactive human experiences in our culture in general. I think there’s a void we’re all feeling created by our device-centered culture, and I think a lot of people want to feel more tactilely connected to each other. I’m seeing increased concert attendance in the audiences of Los Angeles, across a variety of genres, and I see independent record stores, bookstores, and even stores selling only cassettes popping up all over town. I think people want to thumb through the new releases on an actual shelf again, and I think that bodes well for the future of creative music.

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances or stylistic movements?

DR: I think the electronic music scene is fascinating. Especially because I think the sonic possibilities are limitless and a lot of the sonic trends are fantastic. Unfortunately, I don’t actually like most of the songs or musical directions I hear them going. But I love the sonic concepts. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff out there that’s fantastic that I just don’t know. I always feel tragically under-informed about the music that’s going on out there. But then again, I spend all of my time making, working in, and performing music, and I guess there are only 24 hours in a day.

I also think that the advent of cheaper and higher quality home recording is a blessing and a curse. It’s given voice to a generation of artists that would have otherwise never had their music recorded. It’s given hope to lots of aspiring bands and musicians, and made it possible to document and bring to the public eye independent work that is often inspired and inspiring. It has also made it incredibly difficult to rise above the noise, and has diminished the prestige of releasing an album. But, like all things, you have to take the good with the bad, and I think it puts the burden on us, the artists, to hunker down and raise the bar of our own work.

TC: Your trumpet technique bears the influence of your classical studies; Are there are any jazz trumpet players you admire who have influenced your tone, articulation and/or phrasing?

DR: Believe it or not, Wadada Leo Smith was actually my first trumpet teacher. When he started teaching at California Institute of the Arts, where my dad is the Dean of the Music School, I had been teaching myself the trumpet for about a year-and-a-half. My dad asked if Wadada would be willing to teach me, and he said yes. So we would have lessons where we’d spend about half the time working on trumpet fundamentals or learning lyrical classical pieces, and about half the time improvising or even working on Wadada’s own music. I was in 6th grade at the time, and I don’t think I realized how heavy this was!

Wadada gave me my first trumpet albums, which were Don Cherry’s Multikulti, and Miles Davis’s Tutu and Birth of the Cool. I loved them. But I was still more interested in classical music, and it wasn’t until much later that I got into more of the jazz greats.

I would say Woody Shaw is my favorite of the jazz trumpet masters – the fire and the sense of adventure is just so exciting! But I also love Miles, Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Freddie Hubbard, and Dizzy Gillespie, and from the more modern crowd, I love Peter Evans, Dave Douglas, Jonathan Finlayson, and many others.

All that said, I’m not really a trumpet-player fan. I know that sounds a little strange, but I tend not to listen to trumpet players. It’s not even really a conscious thing – it’s not like I’m actively avoiding listening to trumpet players. I just gravitate toward woodwinds and guitars, especially.

Part of it is that I hear something in my head – a sound that I haven’t really reached yet, but something pulling me away from the idiomatic trumpet approach. It’s a crazy thing, because I love the sound of the trumpet, and I have to play with physics and the mechanics of the trumpet. But there’s this elusive thing that I haven’t heard a trumpet do before ... I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but I know it’s somewhere inside, and it will carry me forward through my development as a player.

TC: Beyond jazz, are there any contemporary non-jazz based artists you find inspiration in?

DR: Well, as I mentioned before, I feel tragically under-informed about music in general. I think that’s one thing that keeps me searching. But I feel no shortage of inspiration. I find inspiration all the time all around me in my community. There are so many incredible musicians of all genres with whom I cross paths on a daily basis here in LA, it’s impossible not to be inspired all the time.

Also, in 2013 I co-founded an interdisciplinary arts collective called Creative Underground Los Angeles. This brings together musicians, writers, dancers, and visual artists to work in a collaborative multi-media way to create new work. The artists involved in this collective and its outreaching tendrils provide me with endless inspiration.

I think it’s really important as a musician to step outside of music to seek inspiration. I love drawing from artwork or dance or literature – the thoughts they inspire are always accompanied by the swirling nebula of music in my brain, and when something grabs my attention, it helps focus the sound.

I know you asked about contemporary non-jazz based artists, but I can’t really point any one in particular. There are so many that all feed into the funnel, it’s just an impossible question for me to answer.

TC: Can you give an example of the sort of interdisciplinary work Creative Underground Los Angeles does? I know LA sometimes gets overlooked when it comes to cutting edge art, since the East coast tends to dominate that scene.

DR: Creative Underground Los Angeles (CULA) was actually founded, in part, as a way to shine a light on the brilliant work that is happening here in Los Angeles all the time. We definitely feel that LA often gets overlooked when it comes to cutting edge art, as you say, and I think part of that is because there are very few concentrated places to find it. I don’t mean physical locations, but rather organizations, movements, publications, outlets, etc., that feature this kind of work. But by showcasing new collaborative work both on our website and in live performance, we hope to create a platform through which we can reach people around the world.

Here’s an example from a very successful live show that we did at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. Every year, they host a summer concert series called JazzPOP, and they invited us to put together a night for that. When they approached us, they asked if we could get as many of our members involved as possible, within the limitations of the space (since they were also a guest series, we couldn’t just take over the museum, hahaha!). So, we put together two sets with two different massed ensembles based around the group Slumgum and my own ensemble – we augmented these groups with other members of CULA. Additionally, we decided that as curators, Slumgum and I would not play any of our own music – rather we would arrange music submitted by CULA composers. The submissions were open to all disciplines, and we got submissions from both writers and visual artists. Additionally, one of our very active visual artists, Eron Rauch provided a beautiful set design and video projection component for the show.

For my set, I put together a “pastiche graphic improvisational score” comprised of excerpts from works by Cathlene Pineda, Eric KM Clark, Jose Gurria-Cardenas, Eron Rauch, and inspired by a poem by John Skipp. The band featured Brian Walsh (bass clarinet), Gavin Templeton (alto saxophone), Alexander Noice (electric guitar and FX), Cathlene Pineda (keyboards and FX), Kai Kurosawa (Bear Trax and FX), Jose Gurria-Cardenas (“tribal” drum kit), Matt Mayhall (drums), and myself conducting and playing trumpet. And you can see the whole thing right here: http://youtu.be/RnwWaAWFCu8

This is just one small example of what we do. And we’re still a growing, changing organization. At first we were almost an online magazine featuring monthly releases of new art from our community. Now we’re focusing more on live performances curated by our members. Moving forward, we’re looking for that perfect balance between releasing extremely potent artwork online, presenting mind-blowing live events, and inspiring people around the world to dig deeper in the artistic goldmine that is Los Angeles. Should be easy, right?!

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

DR: Ha! Well, life seems to be an attempt to catch up to the ideas for projects swimming in my head. But as for concrete things, we just did a show on my birthday at the Blue Whale in downtown LA where I premiered two new concert-length works. One, called “Astral Transference,” is a new pseudo-minimalist groove adventure that explores the space between ceremonial rhythm and meditative jazz. The other, called “Seven Dreams,” is a semi-programmatic, poetry-inspired free jazz dedication to my first teacher, Wadada Leo Smith. That show featured a band of some of California’s absolute finest musicians including Joshua White (piano), Artyom Manukyan (cello), Gavin Templeton (alto saxophone), Jon Armstrong (tenor saxophone), Alexander Noice (electric guitar), Richard Giddens (bass), and Gene Coye (drums). And we recorded the show, so we may get a live album out of it ...

Also, I recently did a two-act performance piece with LA avant-garde vocalist Dorian Wood and my acoustic septet, called Sky City, which we’re hoping to do again, and possibly as an album. My hardcore-Balkan-jazz-rock group PLOTZ! is planning our next album, and I’ve got more than plenty of ideas for the next Daniel Rosenboom Quintet album.

And beyond my own personal projects, Orenda Records is preparing to release new albums by the Gavin Templeton Trio, Walsh Set Trio (clarinetist Brian Walsh), Jonathan Rowden Group, the Jon Armstrong Jazz Orchestra, Gurrisonic (drummer/composer Jose Gurria-Cardenas), post-pop power trio Falsetto Teeth, the Michael Mull Octet, guitarist Matthew Yeakley, and possibly electronic composer Kubilay Üner, all within the year.

So, you could say there’s some stuff on the horizon ...

© 2014 Troy Collins

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