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Nashville Scene Jazz Messenger

Young trumpeter takes pride in his work with jazz orchestra

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Trumpeter Marcus Printup didn't even start playing jazz until he was in high school, but he has quickly made up for lost time. At 31, he's an acknowledged star, a bandleader with four critically praised Blue Note LPs under his belt, including his latest, Nocturnal Traces. But Printup dismisses any talk that he's a hot item, preferring instead to discuss his work with the acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, of which he has been a member since 1993. The ensemble makes its Nashville debut this Saturday at the Ryman.

"It's an incredible experience to play nightly with musicians like these," Printup says, speaking by phone from Milan, Italy, one of 33 stops on the Orchestra's current world tour. "There are times when I just have to stop and think that I'm playing in a group with world-class musicians--and you want to make sure you're holding up your end. But Wynton [Marsalis, the Orchestra musical director] insists that everyone in the group do their own thing, and play their own way, rather than try and mimic anyone or anything."

Printup's first influences as a youngster growing up in Conyers, Ga., were spirituals and gospel music. After discovering jazz, he attended college at the University of North Florida, where his gifts as a trumpeter quickly became evident. Even as a fairly young player, he had a gorgeous tone and an immense technical ability that enabled him to play enticing ballads and bristling passages with equal ease. While still a student, Printup was among 20 musicians selected worldwide to represent the United States in the first annual Louis Armstrong Trumpet Competition held at the Smithsonian.

He went on to win the International Trumpet Guild Competition in 1992, and a year earlier tied for second place with Nicholas Payton--now also a top bandleader and soloist--in the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition. Ironically, Printup currently shares the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra bandstand with Ryan Kisor, the player who edged him out for the Monk award. He calls Kisor a "great trumpeter and valuable friend."

The same year he won the Guild competition, Printup began touring with pianist Marcus Roberts, who a few weeks earlier had left Wynton Marsalis' group to form his own band. Roberts introduced Printup to Marsalis, and shortly thereafter Marsalis invited Printup to join the orchestra, though the young trumpeter remembers the occasion for another reason.

"The first gig that I ever played with the group came on the day that Dizzy Gillespie died [Jan. 6, 1993]. We were riding to the airport, and Wynton and the guys were playing Dizzy's music in the car and telling stories about him. Then we turned on the radio, and there was a story saying he'd just died. There was total silence in the car; here we're going to do a concert, and we're talking about the guy, and now he's gone."

Along with Marsalis and Roberts, Printup ended up being one of the musicians who played at Gillespie's funeral. It was a fitting tribute, for Gillespie is among the trumpeter's prime influences, along with Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard (for whom he recorded a tribute album, Hubsongs, with fellow trumpeter Tim Hagans), and of course Marsalis.

Printup pays tribute to Marsalis as a friend and bandleader; the criticism aimed at the sometimes controversial trumpeter, he argues, is misplaced and inaccurate. "The Orchestra is among the freest and most collaborative ventures I've been involved with since I started playing. Wynton is constantly looking for new material and telling us we have to write, we have to contribute. He's very easygoing away from the bandstand, but he's demanding in terms of knowing what he wants, and how he wants the Orchestra to sound.

"I don't get involved in the issues with those who attack him, but I can tell you he's a wonderful person and great musician. I don't think the people who criticize him realize how much he cares about jazz and about the history of the music."

Printup is equally candid about critics who've put him in the class of youthful musicians more interested in recycling the past than in moving jazz music into the future. "There are only so many things that you can do in terms of playing this music before it's not jazz anymore. For me, I think the best way to move jazz ahead is not only to be a great player, but to thoroughly understand the history, then try and find your own voice within it. I don't know what some people mean when they talk about innovation; I'm just trying to present my own view on jazz through my playing."

To that end, Nocturnal Traces represents a fresh development in Printup's career. Half the date's 10 selections are Printup tunes, among them the fiery "Woody's Beat" and "Freddie's Inferno," plus the superb ballad "Nocturnal Traces." Other session highlights are "Have You Met Miss Jones?," one of Rodgers and Hart's lesser-known compositions, and a first-rate rendition of the Fats Waller/Andy Razaf standard "Ain't Misbehavin'."

Printup says he wants to do more sessions and a tour with his band, which includes pianist Kevin Bales, bassist Ricky Ravelo, and drummer Woody Williams. But for now, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra's tour takes first priority, with dates slated through the rest of the year.

"I'm optimistic about the future for both the group and the music," Printup says. "There are certainly obstacles, but I think the response we're getting across the country shows there's interest in jazz and interest among the next generation. That's something I'm going to help keep growing, both with the Orchestra and my own group."

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