Barry O’Sullivan chats with Nadje Noordhius

Described as ‘one of the most compelling voices to emerge on her instrument in recent years’ (Dan Bilawksy, All about Jazz), Australian-born New York based trumpeter/composer Nadje Noordhuis possesses one of the most unforgettably lyrical voices in modern music. Her deeply felt, clarion tone and evocative compositional gift meld classical rigor, jazz expression, and world music accents into a sound that is distinctively her own. Noordhuis was one of ten semi-finalists in the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition and was selected as a Carnegie Hall Young Artist in 2010. Based in New York since 2003, she is a member of the multiple Grammy winning Maria Schneider Orchestra, Grammy nominated Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society orchestra, and the Anat Cohen Tentet. She has four albums of original compositions on her record label, Little Mystery Records, and with her group, is currently working on her next release with support from a Chamber Music America Performance Plus grant. On her brief sojourn returning to Australia to perform and visit family, I caught up with Nadje and posed these questions to her.

When did jazz first enter your musical life and who were these artists?

I have been aware of jazz since I was about eight when I had my first gig at the Manly Jazz Festival. I played When the Saints with a roving group of students and adults – we played and walked up The Corso. I even earned a Swatch watch for my efforts, which was really cool at the time. But I never really listened to jazz, even though I played in my high school big band for a few years. It wasn’t until I was about twenty when I decided to audition for a degree in Improvisation. I only owned two jazz albums – Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Dave Brubeck’s Time Out. I played along to those records, and miraculously was accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

When did you decide on a musical career and where have you studied?

I like to joke that I haven’t decided on a career yet! It’s such a bizarre business – there are so many different hats to wear in order just to get some music out into the world. My original plan was to be a rock producer, and so I did a degree in sound engineering and music industry studies at Southern Cross University, but had the hardest time trying to find and maintain work. So I decided on a whim over a conversation with a friend that I would try something different and go back to playing trumpet. I had played in a funk band in order to pay my bills when I was studying in Lismore. I then did an Honours degree at VCA, and moved to New York to do my Masters in Jazz Trumpet at Manhattan School of Music.

Why and what circumstances led you to pursue a career in America?

It was a series of serendipitous events that saw me move to New York. I was about to enter my fourth year at VCA and was so tired of studying. I really wanted to travel, and so my sister called a travel agent to see how much a flight to New York was. Three days later, we both flew there. I bumped into a Melbourne pianist in a club, who invited me to play at her gig at the 55 Bar in Greenwich village. The drummer of that gig then invited me to play at her gig the next night. And at that gig, the saxophone player told me to do my Masters at Manhattan School of Music. I laughed at him! But it set the ball rolling for eighteen months of grant applications, financial aid forms, and audition tapes, and the plan actually worked, much to my surprise.

You’ve performed in duets, dectets and large jazz orchestras. How does each experience differ for you personally?

I love the variety of being able to perform in all these settings. A duet can be so intimate and can really draw in the listener. I can utilise a range of dynamics, especially the softer ones, which makes people lean in. That’s hard to do when you have more people involved! Playing in larger ensembles uses a different skill set. It’s about balance, blend, and delivering what it needs to support the melody and the ensemble in the moment. There is nothing quite like being in a trumpet section playing the shout chorus of a tune. There’s so much power, and with excellent teamwork, it can be just the best feeling to play. If people in the audience are smiling, I know I’ve done my job well.

What are the benefits and the challenges of being a foreign, female musician in New York and how did you utilise and overcome them?

For the first five years after moving to New York, I primarily played with all-women bands. It was such a bizarre concept for me, but I discovered that there was this incredible network of talented women and non-binary musicians, but I had never heard of any of them. It was this network that supported me for years. It felt so strange not to be hired by men, and for years I couldn’t work out why that was the case. It wasn’t until I rehearsed for the big band called Secret Society, which was making waves in the scene, that I was validated as a player. I had to prove that I could play – it was assumed that I couldn’t because I was a woman. It was quite heartbreaking, really. My career really took a long time to establish in the US, much longer than if I was a man. Thankfully, after the #metoo movement started in 2017 there began to be some huge shifts in the scene. I now work with mentoring programs such as the Women in Jazz Organization, and also do clinics and masterclasses in universities internationally, and talk about the gender inequities in our field. It has been quite a journey!

What are some of the aspects of the New York scene that you feel would benefit the Australian jazz scene if they were applied to here?

The scene in New York is a double-edged sword – there are so many incredible players that there’s always an extreme shortage of gigs. The competition is high. There is a push to always be at the top of your game, because if you don’t play well when you are called for a performance, there’s a line of a hundred players that are waiting to take your place. Since I’ve been back in Australia this year, it’s been hard to prioritise practice time over going to the beach or for a bushwalk. It’s such an incredible country, and it’s hard not to be out in nature as often as possible. When I have visited Australia in the past, and have organised some gigs, I’ve noticed that some players wouldn’t look at the music or listen to the tracks before rehearsal. There’s the laidback ‘she’ll be right’ attitude that can sometimes infiltrate the preparation time. This would never work in New York. You would never be hired again if you turned up unprepared.

What is your current musical project?

I’ve just released my fourth album, Gullfoss, which was recorded live in Switzerland a few years ago. I’m now writing for a new recording in November in New York. I’m taking my quintet in an unchartered direction, which will fuse rock and metal elements into the jazz aesthetic.

What are your other interests outside of your musical career?

I forget what they are, most of the time! I enjoy watching movies, and I knit. I don’t mind cooking. I love a walk to a decent coffee shop! Can that be called a hobby?

You’re home alone on a Sunday night and want to relax. What music would you listen to?

This can really vary a lot. I love music of all genres. This past weekend, I listened to Arooj Aftab’s Sufi/minimalist album Vulture Prince, on which I played some flugelhorn. I also listened to some heavy metal, an old Slipknot album. Next week will be completely different.

What are your current and future musical challenges and how do you plan to surmount them?

My challenges are usually what surrounds the music, i.e. the promotion and marketing aspects. I don’t have a manager. It’s always best to outsource these tasks to professionals, but it’s so expensive. My plan is to keep making music and trust that people will find it, even without the industry machine to promote it. The pandemic has presented an enormous challenge, of course. I had some amazing tours booked, but all my gigs disappeared overnight. I’ve had to regroup and focus on teaching, in order to pay my bills. I’m still working on my projects, so once things get back to whatever our new normal is going to be, my music will be ready.