Greg Kramer has worked with some of the brightest musical stars of the Northwest. With his debut EP released this week, Kramer steps forward on his own, presenting three songs of sweet summer soul cleverly mixed with hip-hop, funk and big band jazz. The original music on Tell Me deserves attention.
Kramer's worked with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (that's his trombone on the ubiquitous hit "Can't Hold Us"), touring stadiums with the chart toppers. More noticeably, you've seen and heard him in the all-star horn section of Seattle's favorite soul jazz stars The True Loves.
It's that context, alongside fellow trombonist Jason Cressey and saxophonists Gordon Brown and Skerik, that I'm most familiar with. But Kramer has developed a unique sound with the three songs on Tell Me. I spoke with Kramer this week to learn more about this, his coming out party as a leader.
A product of the esteemed jazz program at Garfield High, Kramer says he was "a huge jazz fan as a kid. Once I was at Garfield, I got into classical music a bit, too. Then the hip-hop started to come in. But I was definitely a nerdy jazz kid, for sure."
New Cool fans know The True Loves' retro-soul sound, and you can hear that on Tell Me. But, over the five years Kramer spent working with these songs, they evolved into something new.
At the beginning, the poppy hip-hop sound of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis was a big part of Kramer's "musical thinking" at the time. Songs were born on tour with beats programmed on a laptop, "very much coming from a hip-hop vein," Kramer told me.
A strong jazz background informs the music as well, especially on the two instrumental songs, "Goodwill" and "Mission." Kramer says, "I think of them as kind of big band-type arrangements that have different sections that represent the different parts of a big band song."
Of course, joining the True Loves five years ago took Kramer in a soulful direction musically. "That really changed the sound of these records." Several of that band's musicians have collaborated with Kramer throughout the process and appear on these recordings, including in-the-pocket drumming from David McGraw throughout.
The EP's title song, "Tell Me," is a sweet love song featuring singer Otieno Terry. Kramer wrote the lyrics "in a hotel room, on tour, shortly after I met my partner." He recorded "scratch" vocals into his computer on the road, but "I'm a terrible singer, so I knew (my voice) was never going to be on the record. And I've been playing with Otieno for a few years and he's an amazing person and amazing singer."
The two worked on "stacking his vocals," arranging the layers of vocals with the same big band arranger's ear for blending a horn section. Those horns, multi-tracked Kramer trombones, open the song's relaxed feeling within a stately framework. The timeless lyrical message, I hope you'll miss me while I'm gone, proves quite effective.
Also a passionate videographer, Kramer has just released a video for his song "Mission." Written on a two-week trip to San Francisco, the song features Max Levin on organ, Masa Kobayashi on bass and Kramer adding synthezisers "to expand the range. I love how versatile the trombone is, but it only gets so high," he says. West Coast cool permeates the song, and a beautifully smoggy California sunset comes to my mind.
Named for the thrift shop toy chord organ that opens and closes the song "Goodwill" finds it's power in the majestic wall-of-trombone Kramer smartly arranges into a catchy soul melody. It's got hip-hop swagger, confidence, and a real sweetness, too. A charming electric piano interlude ties in with the late afternoon chill vibe of Tell Me.
"One of my main goals in making this music," Kramer relates, "was putting the trombone at the forefront and into situations you don't normally hear it — a kind of hip-hop, pop setting." Combining multiple trombones was also key, "I love the way trombones stack," he says, "building that big sound just by myself."
"My favorite music has always been slow to medium tempo.... I wanted to make pretty music. That's what I like to listen to," Kramer told me. He's achieved that on Tell Me.
Greg Kramer is eager to get back on stage, and may have an advantage as a sort-of solo performer. He told me, "I started performing my solo music live about a year ago, with prerecorded tracks. I would love to do it all live and have a big horn section, but the easiest thing to do is bring the tracks along." As solo acts may be the first to get clubs open, this is certainly a viable option.
As part of the liveconcertsstream.com production family, started by fellow True Loves bandmate Gordon Brown, Kramer may hold his album release party virtually on that platform. Stay tuned!
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Tell Me for your own. It was released this Thursday, on the birthday of Kramer's late brother. "I'm honoring him, he's the one who told me to play trombone. I wanted to put it out on his birthday."
Tell Me is a romantic collection of "pretty music," and an august example of the beauty of the trombone. Greg Kramer is ready to share his unique musical vision, and these days, it's just what we need.
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.