Since joining Virginia Commonwealth University's faculty 12 years ago, world-renowned trumpeter Rex Richardson has spent nearly half of his time traveling. In the past year he's been the featured performer in concerts in Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Greece, Brazil and more than a few U.S. cities. He revisits Australia and New Zealand in the next few months.
Despite all that, Richardson's appearance with the Richmond Symphony next weekend marks his first local headlining concert with a professional orchestra.
Richardson has created a singular career based on his ability to use a 2-meter coil of brass tubing to create and manipulate vibrating columns of air with extraordinary virtuosity. How extraordinary? No BS! Brass band trumpeter Taylor Barnett describes Richardson's facility in shifting gracefully between difficult notes as "Crazy target practice … like always hitting the bull's-eye on a moving target while doing jumping jacks."
He attributes Richard's abilities to an efficient physical technique refined through focused diligence. "If he weren't a musician," Barnett says, "he could have been a professional athlete."
Over coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richardson is self-effacing about his coming performance. "This is the kind of thing I do internationally," he says. "But this may be the best orchestra I've played with. And for them to bring in players like [saxophonist] Steve Wilson and [drummer] Nate Smith and pay their fee. … I consider this the culmination of my work in Richmond."
Wilson and Smith are leading New York players who studied at VCU. They, along with pianist Russell Wilson and bassist Pete Spaar, will play as Richardson's jazz combo with orchestral accompaniment in the second half of the program. Most of the performance will draw on classic work associated with Duke Ellington such as "Caravan" and "East St. Louis Toodle-O," and VCU jazz program founder Doug Richard's arrangement of "Lush Life." The final piece is a salute to quintessential jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong's composer Jim Stevenson.
Stevenson also composed the highlight of the first half, a fiendishly difficult trumpet concerto nicknamed "Rextreme." Richardson is the only soloist who's played it — and may be the only one who can. The concerto is 15 minutes of intense technical challenges, including the precise, rapid execution of leaps between widely separated notes, creating multiphonic chords by humming through the instrument in harmony with the melodic line, and using circular breathing to deliver an incredibly long sequence of notes without pausing for breath. There's also an unwritten, improvised jazz cadenza. And this obstacle course must be navigated with seemingly effortless musical expression.
Jazz improvisation is familiar territory for Richardson, who toured with Joe Henderson during the tenor saxophonist's all-too-brief late career acclaim. Henderson got sick and stopped touring. At loose ends, Richardson followed a beautiful bassoon player to Louisiana. "If that hadn't happened," Richardson says, "I would have stuck with Joe as long as he would have had me on the band, and firmly applied myself to that New York scene. I wouldn't have gone to grad school, and this whole big chapter in Richmond over the past decade would not have taken place."
Although his undergraduate degree was in anthropology, he enrolled in the master's program in classical performance at Louisiana State University. He finished his doctoral work in two and a half years rather than the usual five. His first teaching gig was as a visiting professor in Ithaca, N.Y. He applied for the job at VCU to be close to his parents in Northern Virginia. It helped that he knew jazz studies leader Antonio Garcia from his college days in Chicago. Around the same time, his solo career was taking off.
"By and large nobody wants to hear trumpet concertos," Richardson says. "They want to hear violin, cello and piano." The trumpet typically is used in an orchestra for color and emphasis, for brief flurries of notes, and not extended playing. There are a few marvelous classical trumpet soloists, but none share Richardson's equal facility with jazz.
"It wasn't calculated," Richardson says. "I just started playing this kind of music and people responded. It just felt natural."
Those who know him from his infrequent guest spots at the Camel, or who caught his recitals or the amazing performance with leading jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas late last year, need no introduction. For those unfamiliar, it's a prime opportunity to hear one of Richmond's most brilliant and hardest-working natural wonders.
"Rex is one of the very few trumpeters who can honestly, sincerely and with passion, cross the divide between improvisation and interpretation of contemporary notated music," Douglas says. "He's a true national treasure." S
"Richmond Symphony Genworth Symphony Pops: Rex Richardson and Friends" is Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. at Richmond CenterStage. Tickets cost $10 to $76.