Huntertones’ Jon Lampley Jazzes The Q&A

Sure, Huntertones’ Jon Lampley has a lot to say about the band’s first album.  But considering the trumpeter also plays with O.A.R. as well as with Jon Batiste & Stay Human on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” he has a lot on his jazz-luvin’ mind.

The Huntertones’ first-length album, Live, arrived today and features the band performing at Natalie’s in Columbus, Ohio, and Blu Jazz in Akron.  Although the band is based in Brooklyn, the album captures the group playing at two venues that were crucial in the Huntertones’ early career. 

Included on Live are renditions of “Kill The Beast” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” and the Huntertones’ signature mashup combining Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” with Dave Matthews Band’s “Two Step.”

Do you think it’s kind of risky to release a live album as the band’s first LP?

Absolutely. We put out an EP last November that was a shorter collection of studio tracks.  We were happy with how it came out, but … when we listened back to it we were thinking, “How can we better capture this band for what it is, which is very high-energy, feeding off of the energy of the audience we are playing for?”

Even when we were recording that music in the studio, we were doing live takes.  It wasn’t like drums and bass, then horns.  We were all in the room playing through the songs live.

Going into this album, Huntertones Live, I think we just really wanted to capture the energy of a live show.  We had a lot of music we had been playing for years. Some was recorded on previous projects,  before the band kind of shifted to Huntertones.  We had some recordings of music but … it was at an earlier stage, and we wanted to put that music out into the world with this new version of the band that’s putting out higher energy at the shows.

We picked out the shows [for the album] that were back before the band got its start in Columbus, Ohio. We had recorded a couple of things in Akron as well.  Basically, we’re playing the show and trying not to think, “OK.  This is for the record.”  You don’t want to think about that, you just want to play as if you’re playing any other show.  But at the end of the day you’re like, “Man, I hope these songs will make the cut.” [Hoping]  That there’s no audio random thing that’s going to mess anything up.

Luckily, we took three nights of shows and pulled our favorite takes of the songs we wanted from each of those nights.  I think they all came across really well.  You can feel the interaction and the vibe in the room with the audience and the band.  I think it was definitely worth the risk in our case.  I’m excited that the first full-length is going to be something that is reflective of what we do as a band.

Do you think all jazz albums should be live?

I think it definitely kind of pays homage to what the music is.  The beginnings of the tradition, where guys were playing in clubs.  A lot of the great records … like Miles Davis’ Live At The Plugged Nickel … I think there’s something that lends itself to the music. The improvisation, the energy, those things captured in a live setting come across a certain way.

So many bands, like ourselves, we wouldn’t just say we’re a jazz band.  A lot of the music has inflections of rock, inflections of funk, inflections of hip hop.  With those different types of music come different traditions.  A lot of guys, there are certain things they want to capture … a fusion of different genres.  It may be better to capture some of that in the studio versus live.

I don’t know if I could say I think all jazz records should be live.  But I think there’s gotta be some sort of live element to it.  Whether it’s completely live or the band is playing live takes, I think that’s really important just because it’s hard to capture the spontaneity of improvisation and reaction when you’re trying to preconceive the music.  Doing something live  … makes it a lot more exciting.

With a band like Huntertones, do you think the audience acts as an unofficial member of the group?

Definitely.  In our case, at two of the shows we told everybody, “Hey. We’re recording a record.  Don’t act any differently than you would at a regular show.  But we’re going to be up here having fun.  Feel free to have fun.”  It was more like, “Don’t reserve yourselves.  Be a part of the moment. We want to capture that.”

We’ll be on the road, driving in the car, listening to some live record.  We’ll rewind it when a funny noise from the audience comes up.  Instances where the crowd … that noise, that energy or that moment, becomes just as much a part of the record as the actual music is.

The Huntertones draw from a broad palette, from Neil Young and Dave Matthews to “Beauty & The Beast.” How do you make those songs your own?

Dan White and Chris Ott and I write for the band. We grew up in different musical backgrounds … listening to different types of music.  In terms of the band, about a year in to playing with each other while we were still in college, we started to really understand how each other functioned as musicians and as writers.  Chris and Dan, for one summer, worked at Disneyland.  They were playing in an all-American college band.  For one summer they’re doing shows around the park every day, all day.  They’re around all this Disney stuff.  Chris came back and he arranged a couple of Disney tunes for the band, but the one on the album, “Kill The Beast,” from “Beauty & The Beast” is super-funky.  I think Chris had that in mind. 

If you go listen to the original version, it’s very Broadway, kind of an acting, sing-songy thing.  But he totally switched the rhythm of it, with our rhythm section mind.  Now, when we play it, people recognize it as our own. 

I think, with the Dave Matthews thing or with “Camptown Races” as well, there’s always kind of an idea for the sound of the band that we have.  Any arrangement that we do … we have an arrangement of music from “Jurassic Park,” [and] we did a whole album with Kidsongs – all of those songs were [arranged] with the sound of the band in the back of the mind.  It all translates to a similar sound even though the music is coming from a lot of different places.

We find that it works.  We’ll play a room where maybe someone isn’t so much into Disney but we’ll play the “Two Step / Heart Of Gold” and they’re like, “Oh, man, I love that.  Love Dave.  It’s really cool how you slipped that [in].” It kind of helps us broaden our reach to a lot of different types of people who listen to a lot of different things.

What is the experience like the first time Huntertones tackles a song?

One of the guys will bring in a tune, an original tune or an arrangement into our tiny little rehearsal space in Brooklyn.  We’ll play through it, it’s the first time we’ve heard the song played by the whole group.  A lot of times what gets brought in to that rehearsal, before we play it in front of an audience, a lot of the sections will have changed. That’s because while me, Dan and Chris write the music, Adam
DeAscentis will come up with a different part on bass and it’s like, “That’s really cool. Let’s keep that.”  The band will kind of shape the song. 

That first moment is always exciting for us because you’ll have an idea in your head [and] we’ll make demo files of it, but to hear it played by the band is always really special.  Even after the first couple of times performing a song, it can change from time to time.  It lends itself to the type of music that we play as well.  It’s not like, “All right. We’re going to play ‘Camptown Races’ and it’s going to be exactly like this every time.”  From the first time we played that in rehearsal to now, it’s changed so much.  Certain sections will speed up or slow down. Solo sections will be longer, shorter.  I think having that openness when we bring a song to the rehearsal makes it really exciting to know that a couple of weeks later, the end of the rehearsal, even, it can turn into something even better with everybody’s influence.

Play night after night, are you still leaving room for improvisation and still tweaking those songs?

Absolutely.  Every night when we’re on the road … no version of the song is going to be the same.  Somebody might play a different solo every night based on the inspiration.  Or, maybe the drummer is feeling energetic and the song is a lot faster than it was the previous night.  It’s like every show is catered to where we’re at in that moment.  I think that’s really cool. 

A lot of our favorite band influences, from Miles Davis to Ray Charles to Snarky Puppy to Led Zeppelin, you listen to the records, and you listen to the live performances, and every time they do it, it’s different, whether it’s a different tempo or different energy.  … I think that’s something we really do well as a band and people seem to respond to that.

How old were you when you started playing trumpet?

I was 10. … Fifth grade.  I was 4 when I started playing piano. … I grew up in a family that was deep into the Pentecostal Gospel church tradition. That was the beginnings of music for me, hearing all of my aunts, uncles and older cousins play and sing.  Once I started playing trumpet … I was taking formal lessons but a lot of what I was trying to do was figure out all these different church songs and licks musicians were playing by ear.  So at an early age I was … hearing and reacting and listening versus just learning scales and technique. … As I got older I found it really shaped the way I perceive and play music.

Learning to play piano while a child, the skill with the instrument might grow as the size of their hands grow, and you get better acquainted with your own dexterity.  But how does that apply to learning to play trumpet?  Is there something you need to physically grow into?

I feel that as you grow older and you get larger as a person, your body grows, maybe the lungs expand a little bit.  But I think it’s more about getting used to the repetition.  How that metal feels like on your face. Building your chops up.  When you first start playing trumpet, you play a scale and you’re like, “Man. My face hurts.”  I remember when learning scales, and I’m five, 10 minutes in, and I’m like, “Wow. My muscles are really tired.” 

But then, over the years, you’re practicing more every day, going to band rehearsals every day.  Once I started taking it seriously where it’s practicing for hours every day, your face adapts.  There are physical things you can do on a piano that are probably easier if you have bigger hands, or something like that.  With trumpet, it’s more like muscle memory, muscle strengthening as well as you get used to how to breathe.  After playing trumpet for more than a year or so, it almost becomes second nature to focus on different breathing things.

In a sense, there are definitely some things that you maybe not grow into, but you have to kind of learn through repetition.  I’m glad I started playing trumpet in fifth grade and not in high school. I feel like I had some time to build that stage muscle strength [and] develop my breathing techniques.

Does playing the trumpet leave a novice player breathless?

You get to that point, especially if you’re not breathing correctly or if you’re a younger player, you can get out of breath.  But I think the face probably goes before you realize, even, with the breathing.  I think it’s not necessarily running out of breath.  I play tuba as well and that one is where young tuba players are running out of breath because they don’t know how to breathe.  With that instrument, the way that you push it, is way different.

With trumpet … I can hear the scale and I can hear that the notes should go higher, but if I don’t know how to breathe and use that air, I’m not going to be able to play that.  So it’s more like a novice player isn’t going to be able to do as much … they’re not going to be able to get out certain ideas until they get past certain barriers – breathing and technique.

Music history is filled with photos and footage of horn players, trombone players and such, where the musicians are standing on stage, heads back, chests forward, backs arched, looking like they’re channeling every ounce of energy into blowing air through their instruments. How much of that is real and how much might be a little show biz sizzle?

I’ve seen guys, the whole thing, huge puffed up chests, super-intense crazy faces, and I’ve seen guys playing really intense stuff and their faces are just a little red.  I think a big part of it, nobody is playing the instrument exactly the same way.  Everybody has their own version of it. … Everybody has a slightly different thing to it. … I know when I play there are moments I’ll do that.  I don’t realize it until I see a video of it and I’m like, “Oh, man. I’m all over the place.  That’s pretty hilarious.”  But it’s how people express themselves when they’re playing their instruments.  Because, especially when you’re improvising, you’re not just playing a part. You’re hearing stuff in the moment and you’re getting that out. It’s almost like a dance.  I think a lot of that is part of self-expression.

You’re feeding off of the energy of the crowd as well.  You hear a crowd reacting to what you’re doing, it’s going to make you want to push and continue to go for it.

There will be nights when we’re on our fourth, fifth show in a row and my face is really feeling the strain. But if there’s a good crowd, it helps you find a way to push past that.  Maybe a combination. Some of that stuff is actual strain and some of it is just being in the moment.

What kind of room works best for Huntertones?

We play in so many different types of settings.  In the same tour we played in a dive bar in Louisville, Ky., and we played at a jazz festival in Lancaster, Ohio, which ended up being in a ballroom … and everything in between.  I think the rooms that we do best in are rooms where we’re playing for a crowd who’s really into the music and interacting.  There are some crowds at the beginning of the show where people will be really quiet and go, “Oh, this is like an instrumental music concert.” But a couple of songs in, they see us reacting to each other on stage and we can hear people kind of loosen up, encouraging the band.

We’ve played at some festivals where the crowds are standing and are kind of bunched up into the stage.  Some of the people know what to expect, some of the people don’t.  The crowds are high-energy, people are yelling, we’ll go out into the crowd and play and people are jumping all over the place.  Personally, I’m a big fan of the audience that is respectful, they’re here to hear the music, but also high energy. Not treating it as if it’s the typical sit-down club.

At Natalie’s, where we recorded the majority of the live album in Columbus, it’s like a restaurant … but the energy is still there.  You can hear people yelling … people are dancing.  Once in a while people will get up if they’re feeling it.

Do you record every performance if only for the band to hear the playback?

We’ll set up a recording device somewhere in the room.  We’ll listen back. We’ll upload tracks to Dropbox.  It’s not like the band sits down and listens to every show front-to-back, but we record everything for our own purposes.  If we like the way something sounds, we’ll toss up a video or throw the audio up.  As a band we’re always wanting to get better.  We’re always wanting to see what works this night, what didn’t work, or if there’s something we did or a song went into a certain direction that we really liked, listening back the next day we’ll try to make that a new part of the song. … Like a football team going into the locker room and watching film the next day.

I have recordings on my computer of shows we played at the tiniest dive bars in Columbus when we were just starting out. I’ll listen to “Heart Of Gold” from that night and then listen to it from the live album and it’s just so cool to see the progression of the band.

“I don’t know if I could say I think all jazz records should be live.  But I think there’s gotta be some sort of live element to it.”

This year we’ve done two international tours, both through the U.S. State Department.  We visited Bermuda, South America, and Africa and for another tour we did another festival in Georgia, the country.  Those experiences have invoked us to start writing music that is based on rhythms and experiences that we didn’t even know existed a year ago. Just from that alone the music is going to change.  Our intentions in that realm is always for our music to be an honest reflection of where we’re at in life, where we’re at in music, what we’re influenced by, what we’re listening to.  I think because of that, the sound of the band is going to be there but the music is constantly evolving and constantly emerging.

One of the band’s agreed upon favorite artists of all time is Stevie Wonder.  You listen to him when he’s a kid performing and you listen to Songs In The Key Of Life and you can hear that it’s definitely still Stevie Wonder, he still has his sound and flair, but the music is representative of all the different sounds and things that he’s experienced. 

How do you balance your time between Huntertones, Stay Human and playing with bands like O.A.R.?

That’s the challenge for me, personally. … I’m very lucky that each group has been understanding of my schedule.  I started touring with O.A.R. around the same time Huntertones was getting its start in Columbus.  I told the guys, “This is a huge opportunity and I definitely want to be a part of this thing.”  But O.A.R.’s touring, we’ll do a big summer tour and then it’s a week here, a weekend there.  There is time in between.

Then, with “The Late Show” and Stay Human, Jon [Batiste] and the whole team there has been incredibly understanding that I came into the situation already being a part of Huntertones and a part of O.A.R.  They’ve been very accommodating with my schedule with that.  There are definitely compromises.  There are days where I can’t do this because I have to be there. … The fact that all of the groups have been willing to compromise and allow me to continue to exist, all three are good worlds, it’s been really cool.  I know a lot of situations that aren’t like that, so I’m very grateful for that.

Personally … it’s allowed me to learn and internalize music very quickly.  The Huntertones has a lot of songs.  The O.A.R. songbook is huge. Stay Human, we’re learning different music pretty much every night. … It’s very on the fly.  Being surrounded by such incredible musicians in all of the settings has really inspired me and helped me to grow, not only to memorize music but to internalize it very quickly. … I’ll play in San Diego on a Sunday with O.A.R., and on Tuesday I’ll be right back in the Stay Human mode and at the end of the week Huntertones has its album release show. … But I think a lot of the energy of all three bands that I play with is similar. There’s room for improvisation. … The jumps are vast but not entirely separate.

Is this the best job anyone could ever have?

Every day, whether I’m out on the road or I’m back in New York, I wake up, and even on the days that are rough, the thing that I love to do, that’s the most fun for me to do in the world, I’m able to make a living of off that.  Doing it with the best people, it’s such a blessing and it’s so incredible. I thank God every day that I’m able to do it. It’s the best job in the world, man. The best job in the world.

Check out Huntertones at one of these upcoming shows:

Sept. 30 – New York, N.Y., Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2
Oct. 7 – Akron, Ohio, BLU Jazz+
Oct. 10 – Columbus, Ohio, The Refectory
Oct. 11 – Worthington, Ohio, Natalie’s
Oct. 12 – Worthington, Ohio, Natalie’s
Oct. 14 – Chicago, Ill., Andy’s Jazz Club
Oct. 15 – Chicago, Ill., Andy’s Jazz Club
Oct. 16 – Minneapolis, Minn., Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant
Oct. 19 – Columbia, Mo., Murry’s
Oct. 20 – Burlington, Iowa, The Washington
Oct. 21 – Indianapolis, Ind., Jazz Kitchen
Oct. 22 – Cincinnati, Ohio, Motr Pub

For more information, please visit the Huntertones website, Facebook page, Twitter account and YouTube channel.