Based in Portland, Oregon, North West USA, Farnell Newton is an incredibly versatile musical educator at Portland State University’s Jazz Department, where he teaches a variety of musical styles including, jazz, hip hop, funk, soul, rock, pop and Latin music. He’s also become one of the world’s most respected horn players, and a first choice for touring and recording for a host of major artists. A never-ending list of artists that have benefited from Farnell’s playing includes Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins, Jill Scott, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gladys Knight and Cee Lo Green.
Being in demand so much within a studio and touring environment is keeping you exceptionally busy right now, do you still have time to teach?
“Well I’ve had to kinda step back from teaching and university work, but I still do a lot of mentoring for other musicians when they need advice maybe about the music business, or even help a trumpet player who may need some information on a new instrument. I seem to be the ‘go to’ guy when they need some help, so I’m still in touch with many musicians, especially previous students that I’ve taught.”
Could you see yourself in their position when you were that age, you know how to bond with them, know their goals and how they want to be taught?
“Oh yeah, when I dealt with my students I imagined myself in their position and situation as they were in years before, by that I mean what I wanted to do in life within my playing and my career. I personally had a lot of great professors who were really down to earth, and gave it to me as it really was, it wasn’t sugar coated or anything, it was just straight up. This is what I strive to do with my students, to give them real world experience.
Many of my students have now got successful careers in the world of music. Trombone players from my youth jazz group for example have gone to the New School of Music, saxophone players have gone to The Juilliard School of Music, bass players on to the universities of Oregon and Michigan. So you know, these guys were hungry and they had the music bug, which I could relate to. I didn’t just sit them down and demand that they play certain licks and lines, I taught them well and basically pointed them in the right direction and gave them the right exposure.”
How much demand do you think there is for brass players within session and professional band work, compared maybe to a guitar player?
“There’s usually just maybe one guitar player in most bands anyway, and I feel that horns just put the icing on the cake. They can be the main focus of the group or they can be the garnish or the parsley on the meal, brass can make it look and sound perfect at the end of the night.
But you know, there are so many artists right now from pop to hip hop, from jazz and R&B to funk who are adding horns to their bands, guys like Bruno Mars, Jessie J, Janelle Monae and Liv Warfield, even Prince has eleven horn players in his band right now.”
You are a musician who can play all the musical styles that have followed the trends within music, how and why did you go down the jazz road at such an early age?
“I grew up in Philadelphia and I kinda got pulled into jazz by my peers, who seemed to be the young guys who were running the music scene at the schools I was going to. At the time, I didn’t know you had to be 21 to get into the clubs. We were just 16 and sitting in with the bands like the Tony Williams Jazz ensemble and the Clef Club of Jazz and Performing arts. These young guys would say “Hey Farnell, come with us, we’re gonna go play on the corner, make us some music and a little money. ”
You’ve obviously had an ear for music from an early age, did you grow up in a musical family and what was your first brass instrument?
“Oh yeah, there was always music in our house. My mother played woodwind instruments and I had an uncle who was an opera singer, and another who lived in France and played drums with a lot of jazz greats. My first brass instrument was the trombone when I was in seventh grade. Thinking back I have to laugh, as my arms weren’t long enough to get the seventh position, the furthest on the slide. So I switched over to French horn which I played all the way to high school. When I went to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, they knew I also played trumpet and they really needed a trumpet player, so that was the last time I played a French horn.”
When did you get the break that took you to the next level?
“I’ve always played and recorded from as far back as I can remember, but it all went to the next level when I started playing with a saxophonist called Mike Phillips. He has worked with so many great artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson’s Cirque Du Soleil. He was that guy who kinda took me by the arm and dragged me around with him and said hey, people really need to hear you and meet you, and I’m going to help with that. So from 2009 to the present day, it has been 5 years of constant touring, performing , networking and getting bigger and better as an artist.”
You are credited as a trumpet player on countless albums, do you get time to record your own material?
“I have three albums of my own, ‘Class Now In Session’ which I released in June 2011, then a jazz record which I did with a great piano player from Portland called Marcus Reynolds called ‘Sense Of Direction’ in July 2012. Then early in 2014, I put out ‘10 Minuet Trumpet Jams’, this was kinda like a pet project. Where ever I was in the world, I would record as much as I could in ten minutes and re arrange these pieces into a song. Right now I’m working on my new album called ‘Ready To Roll’ which will be released in the spring of 2015.”
Do you find it easy to write and do you have certain musicians that ride shotgun to try out the new grooves with?
“I record the ideas I’ve put together in a live situation, so in reality, I’m writing and orchestrating within a live band context. Saying that, in the last year, I’ve been writing a lot of compositions for a future record that I’m recording later in 2015. I have several guys that I put ideas forward to, but the main guy I use is multi-instrumentalist and producer, Tony Ozier. He’s also my business partner and we have a record label called FN Beats Galore. Tony is the ring leader of The Doodoofunk Allstars which is like a modern play on Parliament Funkadelic. We work together all the time making everything from Latin music to Funk, Soul, Hip Hop to Rock and Pop.”
Describe if possible, the last 12 months in the life of Farnell Newton.
“Yeah, it’s been pretty full on working with Jarrod Lawson who was on my last album, and touring with the likes of Jill Scott and legendary funketier Bootsy Collins. We sold out Ronnie Scotts Club in London, the Stockholm Jazz festival, and I’ve heard dates are selling out for 2015, so I’ll be back in Europe soon, with my own band as well promoting ‘Ready to Roll’ in the UK.
I’ve been touring with Fusion gig bags now for several years and I like so many things about them. They are light weight, super portable and very durable. I really love the new Triple Trumpet case I have from the Urban Series. I can fit in my trumpet, my flugelhorn, my hard-drive laptop and accessories like shakers and most things I need for a gig, and just throw it over my shoulder without it feeling too heavy, or of course wear it as a back pack. There are plenty of bags out there, but as well as the cool things that are setting the Fusion bags apart, for me it’s not just the product, It’s the relationships that I have with the great people behind Fusion that make me want to spread the word and make it go the distance.”
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Interview by Lars Mullen
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