Natalie Cressman was doing homework in her dorm room one evening during her first year at the Manhattan School of Music, where she was studying jazz trombone, when she answered the phone — and her workload suddenly got a lot heavier.
On the line was Trey Anastasio, front man of jam band behemoth Phish, who had a job for her: playing trombone and singing backup in his eponymous solo group.
In nearly five years of periodic touring behind Anastasio, she’s accumulated a bunch of fans hailing from a musical world she’d never planned on wading into. Now, she’s hoping to bring some of those new fans back with her — toward the realm of jazz.
“Even though it’s not the fan base that I might have had if I’d just come out of a purely jazz background, I’m really happy to have these people connected to me,” Cressman, 23, says over the phone from her apartment in Brooklyn.
Fans who’ve seen her play with Anastasio, or sit in with other groups in the jam band scene, might be surprised by what they hear when they turn up for her solo shows. (She plays Cafe 939 with her septet on Thursday.) Though she’s no traditionalist and rightly points to her outside influences, her work sits comfortably enough within the big tent of jazz.
“So much of my fans’ engagement and interest has come through Trey,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t enjoy [my sound], but I definitely can’t be at a festival where all of the bands are funk and jam-based. That’s kind of a shame, just because I’d love to get my music out in front of more ears, but my own band gives me a chance to really just be me.”
After a debut album that focused mainly on instrumental music, Cressman’s sophomore effort (“Turn the Sea,” released in March) introduces a new focus on her vocal ability. It’s part of her effort to appeal to music fans of her own generation. “I’m just trying to bring this beautiful music into the new millennium,” Cressman says.
“I have friends my age that I have get out to see jazz,” she continues, “and they’ll enjoy themselves, but they don’t necessarily know what they’re supposed to be listening for. I think having a strong melody and lyrics really helps because it puts it into a [familiar] language and the musical story becomes even more obvious.”
Though her singing style comes out of the tradition of vocal jazz, a contemporary feel seeps through the new record. After penultimate tune “Stolen Away” surges forward on an Afrobeat-influenced horn chart, the album closes with a remix of its title track by New York-based producer JNTHN STEIN that suggests Cressman’s latent interest in electronic music.
“I feel like Natalie’s part of a new generation of musicians who have intersected with the jazz world, but whose vocabulary is really broad,” says Peter Apfelbaum, the bandleader and a longtime family friend and musical mentor. “She has all the goods in terms of technique, but is really pan-stylistic.”
Cressman’s parents are Jeff, also a trombone player, and Sandy, a jazz vocalist with a particular interest in Brazilian music. Her father is a longtime collaborator with Santana, and once played a tour behind Anastasio.
Her parents’ connections created some unusual opportunities for Natalie, but these didn’t just result in on-off appearances for the sake of experience and resume building. When she subbed for regular trombonist Josh Roseman in Apfelbaum’s big band, the impressed leader kept her on even after Roseman returned. Jeff first suggested his daughter for the open chair in Anastasio’s group, but this earned her only an impromptu audition — which she promptly crushed.
“From the second she walked in the room, it was over,” says trumpeter/vocalist Jennifer Hartswick, who was tasked by Anastasio with auditioning Cressman in a live setting. Hartswick told Cressman to show up at an Upper East Side bar where she was playing, and had her join the band as soon as she arrived, mid-song. They meshed instantly.
“I had made plans with Trey to call him in the morning and talk to him about it, and I was like, I’m not waiting until the morning,” recalls Hartswick, who first worked with Anastasio as a teenager herself. “I called him at midnight and said, this girl is the real deal. People like to talk about the fact that she’s young and beautiful and all of that, but really, she brings a depth and a maturity to music everywhere she goes.”
As a young, female, trombone-playing bandleader, Cressman knows she stands out on multiple fronts.
“I’ve just kind of gotten used to feeling a little bit like the oddball in so many ways,” she says with a laugh, “and that’s totally fine with me.”