Switching out piano for trombone as a schoolkid because of its simplicity (or so he thought), John Yao is making a prominent name for himself in the city that never sleeps. This New York City musician leads a 17-piece big band that truly swings and sings – reminiscent of why we fell in love with that era to begin with – and also a quintet that has funk, sass and attitude.
When did you start playing trombone?
I started playing trombone at the age of 11 in 5th grade. My first instrument was piano and I switched to trombone because I disliked my piano teacher. I knew my mother was not going to let me quit piano and not continue with music, so I brokered a deal with her to quit piano and pick up the trombone instead.
You come from a musical family?
My mom is the musical and creative side of the family. She played piano and viola and was the one who had all of us playing music at some point or another. My dad is a doctor and doesn’t have any musical background, but is a very passionate fan and listened to music constantly when I was growing up.
Why did you choose the trombone?
I remember the day at school when you got to try out all the instruments in 4th grade. I went straight to the trombone and didn’t even bother with any other instruments. I don’t recall exactly why it happened that way, but maybe because it was different than all the other instruments. No reeds or buttons or keys to mess with, just a bell and slide.
Top musical influences on trombone or music in general?
Trombone idols are J.J. Johnson and Frank Rosolino. The first time I heard them, they blew my mind. Frank is just such a virtuoso and J.J. paved the way for bebop on the trombone. Plus, J.J. had the arranging and composing part of his career which was influential and inspiring.
Miles Davis and John Coltrane were also big influences because they were constantly evolving musically and had a wide variety of styles throughout their careers. Recently I’ve been exploring the language of atonal classical composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern.
What inspires you when you compose?
Inspiration comes from different places. It could be from a piece of music that I heard or a melody or rhythm that pops in my head while walking down the street. Often it’s a musical idea or a feeling that I have in mind.
All in all, the inspiration comes from my desire to explore new concepts and territory and bringing the work to life. I greatly enjoy the entire process from taking an idea in my head and translating it to paper, then performing it with live musicians. It’s a great feeling that hasn’t gotten old.
With no valves or buttons to depress, does the trombone require a superior muscle memory?
The slide is a mystery to almost everyone who hasn’t played it. True, the element of muscle memory is a big part, but there are visual landmarks that help you measure the distance. There are seven positions on the trombone and they are all measured in relation to the bell which the slide runs right under. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not as daunting as when you begin initially.
Do you prefer the upwards glissando or the downwards?
That’s an interesting question and one I had not considered. The downwards gliss is the typical sound that people associate with the trombone. The upwards gliss is not as common, but useful for building anticipation. I guess I’d say the downwards because I use it more often.
What are some of the different items you’ve placed inside the bell for effects?
Outside of the traditional mutes including the plunger, I’ve tried a few different items like cups and mugs. It can be tricky because the item has to be the right size and not too heavy. I enjoy changing the tone with mutes and non-conventional items, but I’m kind of a purest at heart. I like the clean tone and timbre of the trombone and the warm mellow sound it produces without any effects.
Talk about the personnel in your quintet and your “17 Piece Instrument” band.
Both bands are comprised of musicians who I’ve played with or met over the last 12 years while living in New York City. I picked these players because they are fantastic musicians and great people who are easy to work with. Piecing a band together, large or small, is like cooking. Each player functions as a different ingredient in a recipe. The final combination of them is unique every time, which I find fascinating and interesting in itself.
How long have you played together – each ensemble?
The quintet has been together since 2012 with Jon Irabagon and Randy Ingram being the constant from both records. It’s been great to grow and evolve with these two excellent musicians.
The JY-17 has been playing around NYC since 2014. Getting the same personnel for a 17-piece ensemble is nearly impossible, but there’s such a great pool of talent in NYC that I’m able to fill in players when needed. The rhythm section of Vince Cherico, Robert Sabin and Jesse Stacken has been pretty regular, along with several others, and that makes a big difference.
How would you compare these ensembles in quality of sound and the feel of the music?
The JY-17 has a much bigger range of sounds and color due to the larger number of instruments, when compared to the quintet, and I try to explore the different sounds available to me. I look to discover new territory for big band music while staying connected to the tradition of the genre.
The quintet has a similar approach but with a more experimental, improvisatory nature. A group of five musicians can flow to new places together easier than a group of seventeen where there needs to be more order and clarity.
Experimental elements like what?
I’m a big fan of experimenting and have explored the idea of collective improvisation in both my small group and big band. In pieces like “Fuzzy Logic,” there’s a short, written melody, but the improvisation is all free and not connected to the form or harmony of the song. In some cases, I’ve given players specific pitches or a certain rhythmic figure to use exclusively in their improv. This is really interesting to me because they end up doing a lot with a little.
What is the jazz scene like in NYC, especially for trombonists?
I really believe this a great time for the trombone in NYC. There are so many great players and the overall skill level is very, very high. It’s been inspirational and great to witness. Plus it definitely keeps you on your toes! And add the fact that almost every bone player can compose or arrange at a high level too. Lots of great writers and players with more coming every day.
What inspired “Presence” and what does it mean to you?
“Presence” was written after I lost one of my best friends from home. He passed very unexpectedly and was far too young. Writing and playing this music has been part of my coping process and a way for me to never forget him and everything he meant to me as a friend. The tune “M. Howard” was written in his honor.
Grammys in your future?
I would love to be nominated for the Grammys, but I haven’t explored it as much as I probably should. I should get on that. Haha! But seriously, it’s definitely on my bucket list.
At the end of the day I’m happy to keep writing music and making records and playing with both of my bands.
What venue have you not played yet that you would like to?
I’ve never played Ronnie Scott’s in London or the Blue Note in Tokyo. Those are definitely on my radar.
Talk about Birdland.
Birdland is a world-class venue that I’m honored to have had the opportunity to perform at over the years. The staff is great and the owner Gianni is a great supporter of jazz and gives opportunities to younger and up-and-coming players, which is awesome. In my opinion, it’s one of the best rooms to perform and listen to live music in New York City.
Where do you go in your head when you play?
With both groups, I’m focused on playing the trombone at a high level and the overall vibe of the ensemble. This can be challenging with the JY-17 because my head and ear are sometimes more focused on the ensemble and not as much my own playing. I’m hearing the sum of all the other parts and comparing it to what I have been hearing in my head when I wrote it, all while playing my trombone. Not an easy task.
How much of your career is devoted to performance vs. conducting?
I’d say 80% of my career is devoted to performing and the rest to conducting. I’m really only conducting when performing with the JY-17.
We have some more performances coming up in 2018 as part of the Big Band and Beyond Concert Series which I founded in 2015.
Is it a thrill to hear what you wrote played by all 17 pieces?
Yes – seeing the 17 pieces come together and how they interact, it’s a different band almost every time, so nothing ever sounds the same.
It’s a major thrill to hear what I write played by the JY-17. First time I did it, the hair on my arms was standing up and I was buzzing off the experience for two or three days.
One of the best musical moments without a trombone in my hand, and it really lit a fire within me to do it more often because it was such a great feeling.
How would you characterize your style?
Progressive, experimental with a compositional aspect. I really enjoy the idea of taking a motif, molding it into different shapes and developing it into something new.
What about your sound?
Round, warm, semi-dark with a clear and projecting tone. It’s something I’ve worked very hard on and will continue to work on because brass instruments require daily maintenance and are very unforgiving if you take time off.
What do still want to develop as a musician?
To keep evolving as a player and a composer/arranger. To explore a new territory of harmony, texture and color all within the jazz genre of small and large ensembles.
Recently I’ve been exploring 12-tone music and incorporating these elements into my playing and writing. It’s an endless journey and I’m just excited to keep exploring and evolving.
Is NYC still the jazz capital of the world – and why or why not?
NYC is definitely the jazz capital in my eyes. That’s not to say there aren’t other great music cities with excellent players. There’s no shortage of them. Chicago, New Orleans . . . great players are all over the world.
But NYC has the biggest and most volume of players and clubs. This provides the opportunity for interaction between thousands of jazz players and the result can’t be duplicated in any other city.
I’m currently playing a monthly residency at Terraza 7 in my neighborhood of Jackson Heights [Queens, New York] until the end of the year. Each month I’m featuring different personnel with new compositions and music from “Presence” and “In the Now.” It’s a great venue and has given me the opportunity to work out some new music and play with a variety of excellent musicians.
To take the music from my monthly residency and recording it with the band sometime in 2018.
I’ll be going to Hong Kong [in October 2017] to be an Artist in Residence with the 542 Collective. And I’m working on “Suite” for the JY-17 using 12-tone techniques and themes. Three of the pieces are completed, but the remaining movements are still on the drawing board with plans to premiere the entire suite in 2018 at the Big Band and Beyond Concert Series.
For more information, visit www.johnyao.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017