I first met Josh Shpak last summer at the Harrelson Trumpets shop. He stopped by to try out different leadpipe and bell configurations for a Harrelson Summit. Even before hearing him play I thought he had a great presence and an even better smile. Some people seem sort of ageless... Josh is one of those people and it comes through in his music. For a musician in his early 20s... it's amazing how mature the melodies Josh produces are. I am excited to watch his musical career take shape in the coming years... I caught up with him after his performance at The National Trumpet Competition. I am sure you'll agree he is one to watch.
How long have you been playing the trumpet?
What made you decide to go into music / how did you start out?
I have been playing the trumpet since I joined the fourth grade band at my elementary school. I was age 9, so I suppose around 12 years now. I was very lucky in that I started off right away with a fantastic teacher, my godfather Michael Miller, who is both a trumpeter and very successful composer. I enjoyed right from the start the pleasure of playing an instrument...however, the trumpet is not in any way easy. There was always the standard with Michael, as well as in myself, that if I was going to commit so much of my time to doing something, I'd have to do it well. This helped me build a higher level of discipline at an earlier age than a lot of my peers, which I think has helped me perhaps more than anything.
If you weren't a trumpet player... which instrument would you play and why.
I always kick myself that I asked my mom to let me stop taking piano lessons when I was 7...because now I'm doing the same major scales and beginning studies when I'm 20! Piano is just such a powerful instrument, so full of depth. To play the piano in a musical situation impacts the music in an extremely profound way...it's difficult as a horn player I feel to provide as much of a framework to the music as a pianist.
That being said, I try to make my trumpet playing very guitaristic. The beauty, sound and clarity possible in each guitarist's notes is a really great thing to strive for when playing trumpet, and a lot of my favorite music is guitar-heavy.
Who are some of your musical influences and why?
I am really into many different types of music, so I'd say that like most musicians of this era, my influences are eclectic. I grew up listening to a lot of rock and funk music that my parents liked, bands like Earth, Wind and Fire, Blood, Sweat and Tears, AC/DC, Tower of Power (who I've now had the amazing fortune of playing with on multiple occasions). In 7th grade I first started getting into jazz, and listened to a Miles Davis (first quintet) compilation album for a year solid. From there I moved on to Clifford Brown, Clark Terry (my mentor) Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, all straight-ahead jazz kind of stuff. Early high school I moved into listening to a lot of big band stuff, Latin music...when I discovered Roy Hargrove's RH Factor in my Junior year of high school that totally changed my life. The jazz influence on this hip-hop/groove/funk music was just so inspiring for me. It seemed like something my non-musician friends would also be down with, which was very cool to me. From there I got into hip-hop, Neo-Soul, stuff like D'Angelo, Tribe Called Quest, J-Dilla...then Flying Lotus and electronic artists.
Berklee, where I am currently, is an amazing, amazing place for someone who likes so many different types of music. I currently listen to everything; from Thundercat to Joni Mitchell to Wayne Shorter to a Howard Shore film score...Diversity is key!
What are your plans after granduation?
I'm still figuring that out!
My plan is to be moving to either New York or LA, perhaps enroll in a master's program.
Tell me about NTC. Was this the first time you participated? What did you perform?
Yes, this was my first time at NTC. I performed an all-Wayne Shorter set in the semifinals (Infant Eyes and Speak No Evil), and an original of mine, Infant Eyes again and an arrangement of Invitation in the finals.
I was looking over your bio... you've placed in a lot of competitions... tell me a little about that... are you a finalist in anything else at the moment?
Yes, I have done a few competitions in the past. I definitely find it's a great way to meet awesome musicians (I met some people at NTC that I know will be friends for years), as well as a way to get your name out there.
Do you ever write music?
I write a LOT, and I love it. It's extremely important to me, as I hope that most people will listen to me for my music, not just my trumpet playing!!! One of my majors at Berklee is in film scoring, so I am pretty much writing daily for school as well.
On a side note... I learned that Josh actually won the 2014 ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award for his piece, "LET GO", which he performed at a concert he put on last October at Berklee with John Daversa as his guest artist.
Tell me about RIPE. What kind of music do you play?
Ripe is an awesome Funk/Rock/Pop band I'm in...actually I find the best way to describe us is as a party band. If you're going to come to one of our shows, you will be dancing, and you will be having a great time. I joined the band in 2011, which formed at Berklee, and we have been steadily been gaining a following. It's a lot of fun being in a real band, which is not that common anymore. We rehearse 2-3 times a week, and have some touring coming up. We've been playing a lot of universities lately, which is always a blast.
What other performing are you doing right now?
This next month is going to be pretty crazy for me. I'm doing tons of performing around Berklee and the Boston area right now, everything from jazz recitals to General Business corporate gigs. Ripe is playing at Brighton Music Hall on the 10th which is one of the biggest Boston venues. We're also playing some college shows this month spread all across the East Coast, from Massachusetts to North Carolina. I'm going to be Brooklyn, New York at Shapeshifter Labs playing with this great instrumental-funk group called Ninjabeat. Lots of stuff.
Any plans for recording?
The group I just mentioned, Ninjabeat, is recording on May 4th I believe, so we're doing a bunch of rehearsing right now. I'm always doing sideman recording around Berklee. That's fun because you get to do a whole range of different stuff...for example, I recorded trumpet parts for a metal band a couple weeks ago. What?? Every day is an adventure.
As for my own stuff, I've been playing a bit with a couple different quartets recently and I'm trying to get those off the ground. One of them is in a more modern jazz sensibility, the other very rock/groove oriented. So, we've been doing some low-key recording, just to get some demo's. We'll see what happens!
What else is in the works for you in the coming year? What's your current gig schedule like? Where can we see you play?
This summer is shaping up to be pretty exciting. My May is pretty full already with gigs around Boston and New England, some little tours with Ripe as well. Then, in June I'm going to Colombia with a group from Berklee for two weeks. We'll be doing some teaching and playing in various cities and schools. This'll be my first time in the country so I'm very excited. After that, I'm flying straight to New York, we're on playing some shows and doing some video shoots with the Mario Castro Quintet. We recorded his latest album (which was incredible) in December and it's being released June 22nd. I'll be in Europe later June/July, back in the states mid-July. Hoping for some my Ripe touring on August, as well as maybe a West Coast stint with Mario to promote his album.
Musical highlight of your year?
Of my year...hmm, tough. I sat in with Tower of Power in January, which is always an awe-inspiring event. Ripe also had it's biggest show ever in March (we headlined a major Boston club called the Middle East Downstairs), which was incredible. Totally different experiences of course, but there's something special about working with a band for years rather than sitting in with someone.
However, I'm supremely lucky that I get to play with amazing musicians daily here at Berklee. I think that I take that for granted sometimes, but it's really a special place to be.
If your trumpet were an animal which animal would it be?
Wow, good question. I always think of my trumpet as an arrow or something that is shooting out...but maybe a shark?
What do you listen to... when you're not practicing or performing? What's in your cd player?
I'm always listening to totally different stuff, but I've been really interested in this guy Son Lux recently. He's a producer/songwriter and his style has been called "orchestral pop", which I think sums it up nicely. That style of producing/songwriting is really one of my favorites. Son Lux, James Blake, Thundercat...that's all seriously inspiring stuff for me. In terms of instrumental music, Nicholas Payton and Rafiq Bhatia are two that stand out currently. Very different, but both just so cool.
Where do you hope your music will take you?
Making music has been an extremely inspiring and exciting path for me. I've made some of the most amazing connections with people of all ages from different backgrounds, heritage's and lifestyles. I hope that the journey will continue to be as inspiring as it has been to this point. I know that as time passes, this will include change, adaptation and much, much learning. But how amazing is it to make music throughout all of that? In total, I hope to make my living as a musician in whatever capacity I can, whether it be through playing, writing, producing, teaching... whatever. And, I hope to do it surrounded by the people that most inspire me!
Words to live by in my opinion... Thanks again Josh, for taking the time to tell me a little bit more about all of your exciting projects and the source of your inspiration. I am looking forward to checking back in with you soon.
“I love connecting with people,” says young trumpeter, Josh Shpak. “Whether they be teenagers or your grandma, if I can see that they’re feeling the music, I’m happy.” This breaking of generational gaps has become somewhat of a habit for the 20-year-old Berklee College of Music student. With a rich style evident of influences from classic jazz toelectronica, Shpak has made himself a wanted commodity in the music world. This cross-generational quality has launched a career playing with jazz heavy-weights, such as Cedar Walton and Jimmy Heath, soul legends Tower of Power, and young cross-over innovators like Esperanza Spalding, Christian Scott and John Daversa.
A protégé of jazz icon Clark Terry, Josh Shpak is dually driven by a great respect for the past, and a drive to put his own mark on the future. “Every great musician in history has been completely present in his or her own time period, while using their knowledge of the tradition to drive their creative forces.”
Among his numerous awards and accolades are being named 1 of the 4 trumpet finalists for the 2014-16 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, being chosen as a recipient of the 2014 ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award, being selected as a jazz finalist for the 2014 National Trumpet Competition, receiving a 2013 Downbeat Undergraduate Outstanding Jazz Trumpet Soloist award, being chosen as a resident of the Kennedy Center’s 2013 Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program and the 2013 Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music, being commissioned to compose music for the 2013 French documentary film, “California Dream 3D”, as well as being named the 2012 Yamaha Young Performing Artists jazz trumpeter, and the 2012 National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts “YoungArts” jazz trumpet winner.
Here Josh is performing his NTC Audition Piece on his Harrelson Summit:
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