Josiah Woodson - Music Is My Instrument
Josiah Woodson - Music Is My Instrument
by Robert Gluck
When Josiah Woodson picked up the trumpet at age 12 it was, as he says, like a pre-arranged marriage.
Now a Grammy award-winning sideman for his work on Beyoncé’s “Love on Top," Woodson is a multi-instrumentalist with his own new album, 'Suite Elemental,' where listeners can hear his nature-inspired tracks in which he plays flute, guitar and piano.
“Why did I pick up the trumpet at age 12? I have no idea, It was just there,” Woodson says. “As soon as we got to the 4th or 5th grade and we got to choose, it wasn’t a choice. The trumpet was in my hands. I never wanted to play anything else.”
...Until he did.
Steeped in the tradition of black classical music (aka jazz), Woodson studied with some cool and talented people, including Kaleel Shaheed and Marcus Belgrave. A simple Wikipedia search proves Belgrave’s own lineage--he was tutored on the trumpet by the late-great Clifford Brown before joining the Ray Charles touring band. Belgrave also worked with jazz notables Ella Fitzgerald, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus.
Woodson understands his lineage and has a deep understanding of what these connections mean.
"I count myself as being lucky, incredibly fortunate to have had teachers that weren’t trying to be my friends; they were really mentors, especially Marcus Belgrave and Kaleel Shaheed,” he says. “They were loving and nurturing but they were tough on me. They were crushing, but at the same time inspiring. Those people are steeped in the tradition. That is one of the aspects of my artistry that I hold dear and I believe is incredibly important, more important than how well I play. It is something special to come from the progenitors of this music.“
Listening to 'Suite Elemental' shows just how far this young man has come, and in Woodson's view, performing live with his band Quintessential is an act of love.
“I want people to come to my shows, fall in love with our music, and fall deeper in love with all music, especially live music,” he explains. “If they come they will be able to tell that I love music, that all the musicians in my band love music, and we have poured our passion fully into our craft."
“Getting people to come to the show, I’m still trying to figure that out. That’s all marketing and we’re all in that game,” he says. “As soon as they get into the show I’m confident they will have a good time because I wrote all my music with love. I picked all my musicians with love. I picked musicians who love the music. You can hear that in the music, you can see it in our faces -- you feel it and hear it. That is what is communicated to the audience. As I get in front of more people on bigger stages, I’m confident that’s the part of the music that gets people to say 'Hey, go check out this guy, I saw his performance and it was great'.”
In a YouTube video, Woodson explains his vision for Quintessential, his Paris-based quintet that plays in the style of black classical music, athough the band members are from Martinique, Australia, and France, as well as the United States.
"Quintessential is a vessel that seeks to focus perceptions of sympathetic vibrations conducted by the physical manifestations of nature as they pass through the commonalities of the human experience into a unique exposition of emotional and harmonic resonance,” he says. “That is exactly what we’re about. The best explanation is always going to be listening to us live. The music is inspired by the elements.”
For example, on his album’s first track, "Eau," Woodson uses the element of water as inspiration. Not a glass of water, but big bodies of water, like the oceans, that are soothing, calming, terrifying yet powerful.
“Water is life giving and life taking,” he explains. “When you listen to "Eau," the first thing you hear is the intro, which reminds me of the movement of the waves, the back and forth ebb and flow on a beach, or the side-to-side movement of being on a boat or floating in the ocean -- that calming effect. Then with different sections of the music there’s a little bit more trepidation in the water, more dynamics. Think of the bridge as sort of a rafting experience, where the music is twisting and turning through the rocks and through the way the river is going and it speeds up a little bit. That is reflected not only in the chord changes moving a bit quicker, but in the melody moving around those gravities, because there is a lot of modal mixture in there. At the end is the crashing of water. That symbolizes the water crashing and breaking against the rocks and eroding and constantly doing that.”
Woodson says this is not only describing the natural aspects of water, but aspects of life.
“We’re born and our mothers rock us. That is soothing and life giving. But then as life starts to get more complicated, there are different gravities that pull us in different directions and we have to navigate those things. Then life crashes us into the rocks but we have to survive.“
Woodson’s goal for listeners is an experience.
“Each experience is unique in that it is influenced not only by the movement of time, but how we are feeling in the moment, and what the audience is feeling in that moment. I want to give people the sense that we’re really about a communication and a communal experience.”
Having had communal experiences playing with artists like Beyoncé, Branford Marsalis, Clarence Clemons and Mos Def added to Woodson’s own experience, as will his upcoming gig playing with rapper Blitz the Ambassador at the Afro Punk Festival.
Still, after his incredible journey, does Woodson really care what people think? And does that affect his music?
"Yes and no, he claims. His answer is in the neutral zone of the artist's creative spectrum.
“Part of the artist’s journey includes caring or not caring but that is all more like a spectrum,“ he says. “It is my daily work, introspective work, to care less and less because I want to be authentically me. I care what people think, and I listen to what people think, but perhaps it is more a neutral thing. I don’t want to not hear anybody and do what I want, but I also don’t want to be a doormat and become like a mimic just playing what I’m told to play.”
Moving forward, Woodson will keep on doing what he has been doing. He is a rare breed of musician. As multi-instrumentalist that plays his own music, Woodson in succession of artists like Prince, Curtis Mayfield or jazz's own legend, Rasaan Roland Kirk. He's at the pinnacle of a young artist's career. “I play all over the place,” he says. “I record, I do tours with other people on different instruments, I write a little bit, I arrange for other people...”
Still, he remembers his mentors and respects his lineage, but remains his authentic self. When one of his mentors told Woodson to pick one instrument and focus on that, Josiah respectfully told him no. “I told him I did pick my instrument, and my instrument is music.”