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Talking with Kelly Rossum: The prodigal trumpeter returns, at least for a visit

When Kelly Rossum moved to New York at the end of last summer, his absence was felt. He was probably the most visible jazz trumpeter in town (thanks in part to his signature Mohawk, which he shaved before leaving) and was certainly one of the busiest, playing with various groups and bands, leading his own quartet and quintet, and releasing several CDs including “Family” (2008) and “Conflict” (2009).

Rossum left behind his position as leader of MacPhail’s jazz program, which he founded in 2002, and made the leap to the Big Apple, where all serious jazz musicians are supposed to go sooner or later, whether or not they stay. As Rossum wrote in his blog, “The phrase ‘when I first came to New York’ means something special in the jazz world. … It’s a subtle divider among jazz musicians; either you’ve done your time in the city, or you haven’t.”

After a mad series of farewell concerts in August, he packed the furniture and the cats into a 16-foot rental truck and headed east. His wife, Suzanne, had left two months earlier and rented an apartment.

This week he makes his first trip back to the Twin Cities. No surprise, he’ll hit the ground playing: Thursday and Friday at the Artists’ Quarter, Saturday at the Dakota. Earlier this week, we exchanged a few emails.

MinnPost: Have you missed us? Seriously, what have you missed the most about the Twin Cities? What are some fun things you plan to do while you’re here?

Kelly Rossum: Yes, I have missed Minneapolis. South Minnie in particular. Hopefully I can catch breakfast at the Bryant Lake Bowl, an éclair at Butter, stop in and say hi to the folks at the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, and even make a tax appointment while I’m back.

MP: What have been the best and worst parts of being a working musician in New York City?

KR: The best part is the ability to share common artistic goals with other like-minded musicians who face the same daily challenges as you. The worst, or rather the most difficult, aspect of being a musician is finding the physical space to let loose on the trumpet.

Although the winter weather is much warmer in New York than in Minneapolis, it’s still too chilly to practice outside, as I did in the fall. I’ve found a great spot to practice outside in one of the parks overlooking the Hudson River. It’s perfect. I can play as loud as I need to without bothering anyone.

During the winter months, I try to be conscious of my neighbors, not just in the same building, but the entire block.

MP: How is the recession affecting your opportunities to play, and jazz in general?

KR: The recession is making it much more difficult to perform as a freelance musician in any city. High-paying private parties are almost nonexistent, so musicians are scraping for anything they can get, which keeps the need for a last-minute sub to a minimum.

Jazz is affected as well, but in a much broader sense. The art form will continue regardless of the economy, but certain opportunities, such as recording contracts, have all but disappeared.

It’s also almost impossible to tour these days. The costs of extended travel, when weighed against the amount of money that a jazz club can provide, simply negates any possibility of mid-level jazz musicians hitting the road.

MP: Will those of us who have heard you many times notice a difference in your playing? If so, how would you describe it?

KR: I’m not sure, but I’d love to hear your opinions afterwards. I think I may have a touch more trumpet in my sound.

MP: What do you mean by “a touch more trumpet”?

KR: I’ve been performing as a “trumpeter” more than I’ve been performing as a “jazz artist” recently. What this means is that I need to deliver on the stereotypical trumpet sound and expectations of technique, range, style, etc. As a jazz artist, an individual can perform anything in the service of the music. For example, Ornette Coleman playing the trumpet: very artistic and musical, but nowhere near the level of skill required to fill a typical trumpet chair in a big band or other commercial scenarios.

MP: What are some of the major differences between our jazz scene and the New York jazz scene?

KR: A major difference is that now everyone hears me for the first time. Every show is a make-or-break scenario. Essentially this attitude sharpens the knife and provides a healthy competitive edge. Also, I’m consciously working as a freelance musician more, which requires being ready to go at the drop of a hat. I could get a call during the day to play some really difficult music on a performance that same night. That didn’t (doesn’t) happen as much in Minneapolis.

There’s MORE, more of everything. More circles of players within each different musical scene, more theater productions, more dance, more jazz students, more clubs. And the hours run much later.

MP: What’s one experience you’ve had that could only happen in New York City?

KR: I was fortunate to attend and play this year’s Festival of New Trumpet Music.  One of the lectures was forced to move into a room that was under construction; there was dust, tools and ladders everywhere. Looking around the room, I realized these other eight or nine trumpet players next to me were all heroes of mine. I still let Dave Douglas move the ladder; I didn’t want to knock someone out.

The funny thing is, this has been happening to me all over New York. THE cats are here.

MP: What can we expect from your quartet on Saturday?

KR: The first set on Saturday will be our interpretation of the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue,” and the second set will be entirely free improvisation, based on the mood of the room and the creativity of the musicians on stage.

Where to see Kelly Rossum this week:

Thursday-Friday, Jan. 28-29: Pete Whitman’s X-Tet Live Recording. There’s nothing quite like a 10-piece band squeezed onto the Artists’ Quarter’s stage. Here’s a video from March 2008. With Laura Caviani on piano, Phil Hey on drums, Gordy Johnson on bass, Dave Hagedorn on vibes, Jeff Rinear on trombone, Dave Jensen and Kelly Rossum on trumpets, and Pete Whitman, Dave Karr, and Dave Milne on saxophones. 9 p.m. both nights, Artists’ Quarter ($10 Thursday, $15 Friday).

Saturday, Jan. 30: Kelly Rossum Quartet. With Bryan Nichols on piano, Chris Bates on bass, and JT Bates on drums. Here’s a video from Kelly’s farewell performance with the Quartet at the Dakota in August 2009. 11:30 p.m., Dakota  ($5).

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified  and tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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