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Checking in No. 9: Bryan Hooten

Trombonist Bryan Hooten photographed by Anna-Claire Fourness.
Trombonist Bryan Hooten has been an active musician in Richmond's jazz community for more than a decade and a half. A longstanding member of No BS Brass, during the pandemic he has released a new solo EP while taking on the roles of sole performer, recording engineer and producer. Photo by Anna-Claire Fourness. 

Our series Checking in returns with an interview featuring trombonist and educator Bryan Hooten. Bryan has been a member of many popular Richmond bands, including Bio Ritmo and Fight the Big Bull and he is currently a member of No BS Brass. In this segment, Bryan discusses the influence of avant garde musicians Ray Anderson and Tim Berne on his playing and composing. We hear samples of Ombak - an experimental jazz ensemble he led in the early 2000’s - and we hear excerpts from his new EP, Isolation

Bryan also discusses his personal experience of the pandemic, which includes coping with the loss of his father, making the difficult decision to resign from his job as a band-director at Collegiate School and trying to produce an album in which he is the sole performer, producer and engineer.

Bryan’s music is available from Bandcamp. Find his new solo EP here. You can find music by his group Ombak here.


PETER SOLOMON: I’m Peter Solomon. Tonight, a return to our series “Checking in” - conversations with members of the jazz community talking about their development as musicians, life in the pandemic and what they are doing to stay productive and inspired. Tonight’s guest is trombonist Bryan Hooten.

Music: Bryan Hooten: Begin Again from Isolation   

BRYAN HOOTEN: Well, my name is Bryan Hooten and I'm originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I got into music mainly through my parents. My dad was a college band director and a trombone player and my mom was a flautist and singer and so I was always around music.  My dad directed the bands at Birmingham Southern College, and so I would go to his concert band and see his pep band and we would sing in church and hear my mom play flute and piano in the house. So it was kind of always around. My parents never made me do it, but it was almost as if I didn't have a choice. There was kind of nowhere to turn where there wasn't some music happening.

Music: John Coltrane: Blue Train from Blue Train

Jazz was also always around, I think. We had a jazz  big band in high school which I joined. And I have a really vivid memory of this kind of a turning point in my high school life, where I had gone to the music store. And I had kind of been exposed to jazz before, but didn't know my way around too well. And I ran into, a guy who had gone to my high school named Shawn Nowell. And I was kind of looking through the jazz section and he said, do you have Blue Train and Kind of Blue? And I was like, no, I was very shy. I didn't, you know, I didn't know anything. He said you need to get those two albums and just listen to them nonstop. So I did. And that was kind of a big turning point for me.

Music: BassDrumBone “Oh Yeah” from The Long Road

I was awakened to the possibilities of more experimental music I would have to say through the trombonist Ray Anderson. What grabbed me about Ray Anderson's playing was how trombone-y it was. I think  what a lot of trombonists do in classical music and in a lot of ways in jazz music is, is kind of learn how to play nice, like play with a really round, clear sound and crisp articulation to match up with the trumpet players and the saxophone players. But Ray plays in a different way than that. To my ear, a little bit more of a, kind of a vocal style. I guess you could say kind of the raw-ness of his sound and then what he chooses to play was really influential to me.  

SOLOMON: Another artist who inspired Bryan to venture further into avant-garde territory is saxophonist Tim Berne.

Music: Tim Berne “ Jalapeno Diplomacy” from Mind Over Friction

HOOTEN: There's a record called Science Friction. It's a quartet with no bass. Craig Taborn on keyboards is playing the bass parts  in the right hand of the piano. And that record was really brilliant and heavily influenced what I later did with Ombak.

SOLOMON: Ombak is an ensemble that Bryan led in Richmond in the early 2000's. 

HOOTEN: And they were really effective at bridging together, kind of a prog(ressive) rock conception that was very visceral and very groovy with the more kind of angular and avant-garde textural explorations. And the way they went back and forth between those two worlds and many other worlds, was really captivating for me.

SOLOMON: You can hear some of the ways that Ray Anderson and Tim Berne have influenced Bryan’s composing and playing in the music he has made with the group Ombak. Here’s a selection called “Hammer.” It’s from the album “Fan Bricks” recorded in 2011.

Music: Ombak: Hammer from Fan Bricks, 2011

SOLOMON: You’re listening to Checking in on VPM Music, I’m Peter Solomon. Tonight I’m speaking with Bryan Hooten, a trombonist and composer who has worked with numerous local groups like Bio Ritmo and Fight the Big Bull and is currently a member of No BS Brass. His latest recording, called Isolation, is a solo trombone album that includes a heavy dose of a technique called multiphonics.

Music: Bryan Hooten: Day One from Isolation

BRYAN HOOTEN: Multi-phonics is kind of a broad term for producing multiple notes on a wind instrument. On the trombone, the way that I do it, and many other players do it, is to sing one note and play another note. So you can kind of create little arrangements and, you know, harmony parts and counterpoint doing that.

I was just intrigued by the possibilities of the, of the multi-phonic technique and, uh, you know, a good exercise for all musicians to go through is to limit your resources and see what you can come up with within those limitations. So, yeah, that, that was kind of my inspiration for the solo trombone journey I've been on.

Music: Bryan Hooten: Three Four from Isolation

SOLOMON: Bryan says that even though the new recording featured just one instrument, it was a difficult process to make the album for both technical and emotional reasons.

HOOTEN: I think I started recording it sometime in September, like seven months into the pandemic. I think like a lot of musicians, we felt like we can’t really get together safely and play wind instruments so I’ve got to do something to keep my creative life going. So I decided I have the tools here. I have my horn, I have a way to record, I’m going to make it. And it was emotionally really tough because I had never dealt with trying to be creative in an improvisational way, playing my horn and trying to, you know, manage the recording software and placing the mics and editing it and mixing it  became… There's some times it was really frustrating. I remember calling Lance Kohler, the drummer from No BS or Trey Pollard, or, you know, various other people, just kind of distraught and having these questions, like, why does this sound like this? And how do I fix it? So that was it was an intense process to just get those four little tunes done. And knowing that I had not been like playing with people for several months and wasn't going to be playing with people for several months, struggling like I think a lot of people have been with, you know, the motivation to practice and to be creative when everything out there seems so dark and there's no definite timeline about when it was going to be over. So it was a good process of I'm going to play, I'm going to record this and at some point I have to quit trying to perfect it and just move on and like make a document of it, put it out there, move on.

SOLOMON: Adding to the stress of being the producer, the engineer and the performer, Bryan was trying to make the album while contending with pandemic and dealing with the loss of his father.

HOOTEN: My dad passed away in April and he had been ill for a while and was in assisted living. We couldn't really go see him, you know, because of  COVID hit, I guess in kind of March, So there was a good month there where like, we couldn't see him. I think the sense in the family was that it was going to be time soon for him to go. And, and that was really hard not to be able to see him. I mean, we, like the best we could do was kind of walk up to his window and wave at him.

Um, and he would wave back and talk to him on the phone, of course, but there's a tune on the record that I wrote previous to him getting sick, or maybe right around the time when he was first diagnosed. In the lead-up to his passing and when we scattered his ashes on the James, I had a really hard time figuring out kind of what to say about all of it. And the kind of the best that I could come up with was just playing the trombone.

Music: Bryan Hooten: That’s a Wrap from Isolation

It was hard for me to like put sentences together about that experience. Um, so, uh, used the use the means that he taught me cause he was my first trombone teacher.

SOLOMON: What were the big lessons you learned from your Dad? I’ve heard you talk about or seen you write about your Dad, he had a certain work ethic.

HOOTEN: What I've learned from him was that I didn't have to play, but if I was going to play, I needed to practice. I needed to take it seriously. There were times when I was his student for a while, but when I started to, you know, this is like right around, you know, teenage years. I started to think that I knew everything. And so, you know, I still kind of regret this and think about it, but he, he kind of fired me as a student. He didn't like to talk about it, but he was kind of like, well, I think we probably need to find you a new teacher, you know.  He would say, “son, you need to play that forte.” And I would say, “I did,” you know, not really like taking the guidance.

So he found me another teacher. And I think that's probably true for a lot of  parent-child educational relationships - is, there comes a point where that needs to happen. But I learned so much from him about leading ensembles and directing band and could always call him and say, Hey man, I'm having this  issue with my group, what should I do? So I mean, I just learned a ton from him about music and being a leader and about being kind to people.

SOLOMON: While we’ve mostly been focused on Bryan’s skills as a composer and improviser, he’s also a great arranger. He wrote this arrangement of Charles Mingus’ “Jellyroll Soul” for the 2012 Mingus Awareness Project. This recording is from that live performance at Balliceaux.

Music: No BS Brass: Jellyroll Mingus Awareness Project 2012

SOLOMON: Charles Mingus “Jellyroll” performed by NO BS  Brass live at the 2012 Mingus Awareness Project Concert at Balliceaux. That arrangement was written by trombonist Bryan Hooten, our featured guest tonight. Until recently, Bryan worked as a band director at the Collegiate School in Richmond. The pandemic forced him to make the difficult decision to leave that job.

HOOTEN: Like many teachers, I had the option of either teaching in person or resigning, so I resigned. That was tough. It was tough to leave that behind, but it was the right decision for me. Another part of my experience with that was my dad being a band director and growing up around that With his passing, it gave me the opportunity to think about how much of the path that I'm on was his path and how much of it is mine and I needed to give myself the space to explore that.

So you know, I left my teaching job and since then I have been  just trying to write a lot of music. My wife is still working. She's a retail store manager. So she's been in the thick of it and around the public and trying to keep her people safe and keep the public safe. So I've been doing a lot of cooking and a lot of doing laundry and taking care of our place and our cats and, you know, looking for other ways to give back to the community in a safe way. So we're doing some, you know, a little bit of volunteering, and continuing to write music. You know No BS is working on a new album right now. And so I've been writing a bunch of music for that and, doing, some individual recording for that and trying to get outside, ride my bike when I can, go for some jogs, do lots of  yoga and meditation as well. 

Music: Ombak: River Tam from Fan Bricks

I just miss being around people. I mean I don't know if I have fully processed how much the pandemic has affected, basically everything I've devoted my life to up until this point. You know, it kind of took away the ability to play music with people and for people, you know, it took away the option to practice yoga with people and teach yoga classes in person. Music and yoga and meditation are kind of my two, the two things that inspire me most that I like to spend time doing apart from being with my wife. We get to be together all the time now, which is great. So those have been really big changes in trying to adapt to like, how can I continue to be involved and develop those parts of my life when the culminating experience of those practices is not available? So it's been a good practice of devoting myself to the process without attachment to what the outcome will be.

Sometimes the best you can do is focus on what do I need to do in this hour, what I need to do today because trying to think too much long-term is not really possible, or it's not really possible for me, I guess, maybe for some people.