Peter Evans (b. 1981) is a trumpeter and composer living in Brooklyn, New York. He is known for his virtuosity on both the standard Bb and more arcane piccolo trumpet, as well as for his astonishing energy, endurance, and mastery of styles from bebop to contemporary classical to noise.
Evans is an innovator in solo trumpet performance, utilizing circular breathing and an arsenal of extended techniques to produce swirling, uninterrupted streams of sound. There is the sense that Evans not only meets the physical demands of his instrument, but comes rushing at them with such force that he is sometimes moved to augment his playing with grunts, whoops and howls.
He is the type of musician who makes you wonder how he does it, and a natural early subject for this series. Peter and I talked on Zoom in late July 2021. He appeared onscreen in a lime green tank top, in a room lit with colored lights and stars on the ceiling. He drank from a large glass of beer; medieval music played in the background.
Our conversation is condensed. Peter approved it and sent a few additions which I’ve set off in italics. If you’re interested in the full transcript (more than twice as long as what follows), email me.
Did you practice today? What’d you work on?
I did practice today. But by way of background: I played an intense gig on Thursday night, the culmination of quite a bit of practice. Then on Friday, I went to a friend’s wedding – Moppa Elliott, who ran the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. I knew that I was gonna play at that, so I kept my chops in shape with a warm up. At his wedding we played “Hava Nagila,” some 80s pop tunes, some jazz. On Sunday when I got back, I just did my warm up and not much more.
Today I was practicing shapes from a period of Coltrane’s output that I’ve always wanted to internalize, but never spent the time on. They’re basically pentatonic shapes that skip steps – arpeggiated pentatonics. You hear a lot of them on A Love Supreme. I always wanted that vocabulary, so about six weeks ago, I started to just go to town and slowly learn them. I’m still not where I want to be, but I know them enough that I’m trying to attach them to, say, “All The Things You Are.” I was practicing that today, trying to only use these shapes. On a major or minor chord it’s easy, but then on an altered chord or some kinda five chord, they’re much harder to fit. So that took me about an hour-and-a-half or so, just going through it.
Where’d you play?
Just at home in Brooklyn. I have an office that I call Frank’s, named after an old cocktail bar. It’s my music room. I just sit here at my desk or sometimes I use a music stand.
Where’s your phone while you practice? How do you deal with distraction?
My phone is around. Especially during the warmup, I’ll watch TV or news and just zone out. I’m still paying attention to what’s going on, but not micromanaging. If I’m doing serious practice then it’s usually absorbing enough that I don’t even think about looking at my phone. Sometimes if I’m hanging out really late at night, I might smoke a joint, have a movie on, practice. It’s not like practicing, but it’s still practicing.
Do you put a mute in at night?
I put a practice mute in or a harmon mute. I also have a conga drum. I’m taking lessons in a type of West African drumming called Ewe. I practice patterns on that drum late at night, but I have a shirt over it and a rug under it so it’s pretty muffled. Also, I live in a very lively neighborhood. There’s a lot of sound so nobody really cares.
When do you tend to practice? What time is ideal?
Between twelve and six p.m. is when I practice most. But I always compare my instrument to a bowl of M&Ms – it’s just out. It’s eleven o’clock and I’ll just check something out real quick. It’s there all the time. I never put it in the case.
What do you consider weak spots in your technique?
I’m working on my sound. I’m trying to get a more neutral sound that I can then mess with. And, maybe this is why it’s not working so well, I’m also trying to get a fuller sound in the registers. I’m trying to fine tune. Moving around a scale in the upper register is not something that I do super well, so I’m working on that.
It’s not trumpet, but I’m also working on my time – being more steady and thinking about how the uncertainty of the trumpet affects my time. A long time ago, I used to play amateur jazz piano at jam sessions or hanging out with friends. One day I noticed that when I was soloing, my right hand was sheepish going into the upper register. I think that’s because the trumpet told me the higher you go, the more risk. The way the instrument responds accentuates certain insecurities. So I’m trying to take myself through the paces with that – figure out what’s real, what’s not and what I can do to fix it.
Let’s talk about recommended exercises to develop trumpet technique:
A good tone
It would depend who I’m talking to, but for me, playing at a very soft dynamic influences everything positively. The way the trumpet works acoustically is that the louder you play, the richer the frequency spectrum. However, that isn’t always where you find the most beautiful sounds. I’ve played a lot of shows with microphones and PAs and I’ve noticed that the timbre of quiet trumpet, even if it’s decibel-wise loud, still has the feeling of being quiet. There’s an intimacy. I think I prefer that tone even though I know I play loud a lot of the time.
I don’t consider myself a big high note person, but any advances I’ve made have to do with staying relaxed, using my air, and basically tricking myself into thinking that the high register and the low register are the same. That’s an orchestral trumpet approach, cranking out these big fat notes. Whether it’s a high C or low F#, it’s all produced by these big gusts of air. That’s how I was taught and I think it works pretty well.
If I’m in a range-building period, I usually defer to overtone exercises. So starting on low F#, for instance, I do extremely slow or extremely fast glisses up the overtones series.
Something else I’ll do, which – I’m not sure if it’s good advice for anybody else – is sine wave-like fading in from nothing to a super-quiet dynamic and then fading back into nothing. Just being really controlled with the air, but making it feel easy, relaxed. It’s not really about music – it’s about sound, exploring the lip-trumpet interface and hearing what happens.
I get that question a lot. My stock answer is I’ve tried to be very conscientious about having good fundamentals. From that base, you can take the trumpet anywhere. You think about players who have great fundamentals, like Adolph Herseth, Clark Terry. They had very different jobs, but their fundamentals were just so good.
I was raised pedagogically through an orchestral trumpet track. So I know what it’s like to play a Shostakovich symphony or Mahler or Bartok. But if I had to play a symphony tomorrow, it would be a huge ordeal.
More than one of your epic solo shows?
Sure, because I’m used to solo shows. Over the years I’ve learned how to pick my battles, how to create musical structures that avoid the diminishing return aspect of the trumpet. So for instance, if I want to do some dense polyphonic or polyrhythmic texture for several minutes, I don’t need to do that in the high register. That can happen all at C in the staff and below. It’s musical information, it’s not trumpet information.
How do you find new sounds on the instrument?
I’d say mostly through performing, although I’m not really in that zone anymore. That was just a phase, but it unlocked something in my mind in terms of timbre, a sort of modular synthesis way of looking at the trumpet. I still have that mentality, although I’m not necessarily doing the laboratory research of finding new sounds.
What do you mean by a “modular synthesis way of looking at the trumpet?”
It used to be when you had a synthesizer, you had a filter box or reverb effects or you could mix another sine wave into whatever sine wave you were working with. You’d literally patch together these different sounds and processes. Exploring these different techniques on the horn unlocked a new way of thinking, a more combinatorial aesthetic.
Rather than “here’s this special sound, here’s this special sound,” I want to be able to move and combine. Sound has multiple identities and you can highlight different ones, mix and match them, move between them. Then it’s structural also, it has a temporal quality, not just a sound trapped in one moment in time.
Sometimes on a gig I’ll be doing one thing, and nobody realizes it, but there’s this other thing happening that I’m gonna bring to the foreground. They’ve been hearing it for five minutes, but they didn’t know it. It’s a powerful compositional technique.
Is it important that you stay in good physical shape?
I exercise, but not specifically for trumpet. I go jogging and I do yoga sometimes on the road. It’s extremely important for my mental health. If I don’t get up and move around, I just feel awful, sad, all that stuff.
What’s a particularly challenging piece of notated music you’ve learned and what’s that process like?
I think notational complexity is pretty overrated, and it’s difficulty in the minds of most practicing musicians has been built up into something that it’s not. It may be a bit of an age thing. When you’re young, you’re idealistic and want to tackle these super hard pieces. But once you get more comfortable with yourself and your career, you don’t necessarily have that desire or really see the point.
It’s common that you get into a new music situation, and are faced with a composition where the notes and rhythms are on one stave. Valves are notated on a second stave, breathing is on a third stave, there are nasty polyrhythms and you’re playing some arcane intonational system invented by the composer. I know this might sound like a parody, but it’s not that far off. It can be really scary to look at!
Peter adds: This type of writing has become more or less accepted through the academic mainstreaming of the influence of composers like Ferneyhough, Lachenmann, Grisey and their students. These three composers are all amazing, by the way. It’s just that the things that get copied and passed down the chain are often the most superficial and easy-to-copy aspects of an artist’s work. The same thing happened with bebop, for instance.
What I don’t understand about it is that if you hear any great musician, that’s just normal – they’re incorporating body, instrument, technique. To highlight how separate they all are seems mechanical, deterministic – maybe the opposite of what the composers intend. Instead of incorporating all this stuff, you show the players how much they’re doing, which freaks them out. However, hard to read and hard to play are not the same thing.
In terms of the difficulty of performing notation, I’ve seen classical players fall on their faces playing simple sixteenth notes and eighth notes – just playing them with a sense of groove and inevitability. Complex rhythm tends to get played more accurately than simple rhythm, even though simple rhythm is what ties everything together.
Peter adds: To answer your question a bit more directly: In 2016 I played first trumpet in a production of Andreissen’s incredible opera De Materie at the Park Avenue Armory. There are four acts: one and three feature more or less a hybrid of classical and jazz big band writing for the trumpets; acts two and four are soft, controlled, minimal, and very slow in tempo and rate of development. The latter movements are much more difficult on the trumpet, even though the notation in the first and third movements are more complex when you see it on the page.
How do you deal with not practicing? Do you take your horn on vacation?
Yes, I take my horn – thank God it’s small. I’ve learned that the price to pay for not playing isn’t worth it, and it’s not a big deal for me to play twenty, thirty minutes a day no matter where I am. Sometimes I don’t feel like practicing, but I do it. My wife and I will be going to sleep and I’ll remember, “gah, I need to get my practice in.” I sit up in bed with my mute and just do the basics. I’m willing to admit there may be a placebo element, but it’s a small price to pay for such an amazing thing to be able to do.
What mute do you use in that situation?
It’s a small practice mute made by Faxx. I got it about ten years ago and it’s great. It’s very quiet and stays in tune in all registers so I can really practice. This mute has gotten me through a lot of jams. I even use it for practicing on planes late at night.
Yeah. It’s super loud on an airplane and everyone has headphones in. If no one’s next to me, it’s fine.
Do you listen to a lot of music?
All the time. I even had music on at the beginning of this call.
Do you listen to stuff over and over or do you flit around?
Over and over.
Pre-bebop trumpet performance
My favorite was recorded after be-bop, but by a pre-bebop guy. “Rocking Chair” by Roy Eldridge with the Oscar Peterson trio.
“I Love You Too Much” by Stevie Wonder.
Notated composition from the last two decades
“the children of fire come looking for fire” by Eric Wubbels. He’s a friend of mine, but it’s an amazing piece. I hear it coming out of the Western tradition of notated music, like Brahms and Beethoven, but super fresh. There’s a sense like it had to be written and played. It has weight.
Music method book
Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu.
There’s an area that we didn’t get to which is what the whole point of practicing really is.
I think the reasons for practice changes over the course of your life. When you’re young, you just want to be good, whatever that means. At that time, it makes sense to go pedal to the metal – stay up late, fall asleep with the instrument. But there comes a point when you start to wonder – what does that even mean, being good? Are you comparing yourself to somebody else? Is there a paradigm in your musical scene or style that places a premium on technical know-how? If there are not really clear paradigms that you’re shooting for, then how do you know you’re getting better? You need to figure all this stuff out.
At that point, practicing becomes more probing, scientific, but also more relaxed.It’s a beautiful place to be. If I’m practicing scales, I am trying to get them clean, in tune, in time, but I’m not practicing with this frantic feeling of, “I gotta be good, I gotta know my scales.” I’m doing it because I enjoy the process. I choose material to practice with maybe some hope that it has to do with what I do as a musician, but not always. Practicing something just for the sake of practicing is a noble activity.
It’s not about beating yourself up. Like “Today I’m gonna practice ‘All the Things You Are’ in 13/8 because I can’t do it.” That’s cool, that should be done. But I think in general, the umbrella over practice for me and other musicians that I work with is more open ended, exploratory, and less rationally related to what we actually “do” than someone from the outside might think.
Do you think you get better results that way?
I think it’s a deeper way of approaching practice, more holistic, and yeah I think it actually might be more effective. But that’s not the reason for it. That’s what’s so cool. If you just trust this thing and do it, yeah, you’ll be good, but you’re also gonna touch something else that’s way more important. Once you find that, then your relationship to music and performing starts to change. I was surprised that I didn’t really miss playing concerts more during the pandemic. It didn’t really cross my mind. It wasn’t like I needed to be onstage to show how good I am. I really just enjoy practicing, investigating, checking stuff out, and seeing what happens. It’s mesmerizing.