Trumpeter Wayne Tucker is all over the New York scene, from his own projects as a bandleader to his regular tours with Cyrille Aimée and Eyal Vilner, even supporting artists like Taylor Swift and Elvis Costello. “I think that being a musician is some percentage artistry and some percentage vocation,” Tucker says, and he’s engaged with both on a daily basis.
This Wednesday, Tucker will bring his band, Wayne Tucker and The Bad Motha’s, to The Jazz Gallery. The band features a unique blend of musicians, including Jason Marshall on baritone sax, Hila Kulik on piano, Todd Caldwell on organ, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums. Expect lush arrangements, earnest exploration, and plenty of groove. We caught up with Tucker to speak about his singing and songwriting process, his trumpet practice, and the best advice he’s ever been given.
TJG: My introduction to your music was through your new videos from the LIC Beer Project. “Humans Groove Harder Than Robots” has a very Fela Kuti afrobeat feel to it—What’s your background with afrobeat?
Wayne Tucker: From the time I was a kid, I’ve been exposed to all sorts of different genres. My favorite music is always music where anything can happen in any moment. When I wrote this one, it didn’t start as an afrobeat tune. The rhythm came after the melody. It was inspired by an artist I play with named Mr. Reed. He first started playing music in church, and his mom is a minister. While he considers himself a hip hop artist, there’s definitely a gospel-oriented thing to the music. He sings and freestyle raps. He has a song with a similar groove, and that’s what spurred me as I was writing. He’s on my first album, singing on the title track “When I Was A Child.” We’ve been playing together in the city for something like eight years now.
TJG: I love the conversational, intimate style of the lyrics on your song “Little Buddy.” How did this song come about?
WT: Generally speaking, the songs I write come from stream of consciousness. I want to write and create without a filter. The song came maybe a year after a breakup, and I was finally feeling peace with it, you know?
TJG: Was writing the song an important process in figuring things out? Or did it arrive when you’d finally come to peace with certain things?
WT: I would say the latter. In terms of lyrics, my songs often have to do with a reflection of lived experience. I have a couple of tunes where I was really writing in the moment of the song’s origin, but most often it comes from me reflecting.
TJG: On your Indiegogo page for the last album, you do a more stripped down version of “Little Buddy,” and on WGBO’s The Checkout, it’s a faster, almost afro-cuban feel. Is the song a kind of vehicle for experimentation?
WT: I suppose I look at every song like that. On “When I Was A Child,” the original chorus became a horn part. The form changed. We added a verse. “Little Buddy” has changed a lot just because I have played it constantly over the last few years. Everything is constantly evolving. The more time I can dedicate to it, the more it can change in the moment.
TJG: Do you see your trumpet playing evolving in the same way as your singing and songwriting?
WT: Yes, but in a sense, the evidence of it isn’t obvious, because I’ve been playing trumpet for much longer. I’ve been singing my whole life for fun, and in a couple choirs growing up, and I really enjoy it, but I’m not the most versatile singer. I just did a couple of tours, first with Cyrille Aimée and then with Eyal Vilner, and my role on each tour was a little bit different. With Cyrille I was playing trumpet and flugelhorn, and was often singing the tenor voice in pre-arranged four-part harmony. That was a big step in my evolution. To be exposed and not singing the melody, or to go right from playing trumpet to singing a background part, that was good for my growth. Cyrille will critique me too, which is great. We don’t always do the right thing in the moment, so it’s good to be critiqued. In Israel with Vilner, I was playing trumpet in a small big band, something I’m not really used to doing. That was a big step as well. I still take lessons as well, usually in technique and playing high notes on trumpet with Bryan Davis, a great lead trumpet player. I’m searching every day. I’ll practice right after we finish this interview. I’m always trying to shape and redefine my ideas, while not forcing anything, so I want to constantly be evolving, and not only on the bandstand.
TJG: I really liked your “Lonely Woman” arrangement at from your show at Birdland, as well as the studio version from your album. How do you approach arranging something like that, or The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” when the original has such a strong vibe?
WT: Man, I almost don’t take credit for things like that, simply because I woke up one day and wrote down what was in my head. I suppose I’d heard “Lonely Woman” so many times that it began to evolve in my mind. One day the arrangement just came to me. I didn’t hammer it out and work on it over and over again. There are lines that change and grow, but that’s more about the form than the general vibe or feeling of the arrangement, which was already there. Sometimes I really have to grind away at an idea. But with “Lonely Woman,” I basically just wrote it down and checked on the piano to see if it was right.
TJG: When you’re working with other artists, whether Cyrille Aimée, Taylor Swift, or Elvis Costello, do you feel like you have to put a part of yourself aside?
WT: Absolutely. I think that being a musician is some percentage artistry and some percentage vocation. Sometimes it’s 100% vocation. Sometimes they call you because you have the ability to push the buttons and blow into the horn the right way. Sometimes they call you to be yourself and do what you feel. And it’s all an important learning experience, no matter who you’re playing for.
TJG: In the last couple of years, what do you think has been your biggest challenge in a professional setting?
WT: Honestly, the recent tour playing lead trumpet was really tough for me. It took a few physically demanding days to get used to the physicality of playing the tough notes. The tour with Cyrille was a big epiphany over the last couple of months as well. Another experience that I loved, in that it was almost spiritual, was a tour I did last spring in Israel with a group of near-strangers with a great singer named Shirma Rouse. I didn’t really know anything about her voice or her musicality, I just knew she’d be a good performer because she’d won The Voice of Holland. She taught me a lot during that tour. I think of myself as someone who dreams big and works hard to achieve those dreams, but she told me “Listen, it’s great to do that, but you’re already there. Live and experience the things you’re dreaming of. Picture yourself being a star, for whatever that’s worth, and already be there.” She truly lives that way. When we’re on stage, she’s so present. She’s got a great career and is a star to many people, but gives the musicians that balance of artistry and vocation too.
TJG: Do you think a lot of people could live according to that advice, or did her voice more specifically apply to you, given all the great things you’ve got going on right now?
WT: Great question. It could apply to anyone. I know people who all they want is to be stars, but don’t understand the basic things they could do to make the music better, to raise their musicianship. I don’t ever want to forget about that. It’s important to have all the bases covered. She used the word “star” not in the sense of being famous, but just to do the thing you truly love, to focus on it and showcase it. Not everyone is ready to be there at this moment, but anyone can get there with practice and experience.
TJG: At The Gallery, you’ll be joined by your band, which includes Jason Marshall, Hila Kulik, and Todd Caldwell. What inspires you about your band?
WT: I call people whose sounds I love, and who can play in many different styles. We could play “Lonely Woman” and start in the way I’ve envisioned, but I try to play with people who want to go on a musical adventure. I’m more comfortable going on those adventures on the trumpet. As a band, we have a lot of fun on stage. I’m excited for the show. I’ve been going to The Jazz Gallery since my second week in college. I saw Roy Hargrove play there with with Darren Barrett. Ever since then, I’ve been really into the place.
Wayne Tucker and The Bad Motha’s plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, January 17, 2018. The group features Mr. Tucker on trumpet and voice, Jason Marshall on baritone sax, Hila Kulik on piano, Todd Caldwell on organ, Tamir Shmerling on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.