Today, August 8, is Laurie Frink’s birthday. “All In,” from my upcoming recording, Dynamic Maximum Tension, is dedicated to her.
In the photo above, you can see Laurie warming up in the chillest way possible, reclining in the lounge of the late, lamented Bennett Studios. This is where Secret Society recorded our first album, Infernal Machines, in December of 2008. It was my first time taking a band into the studio, and also the first bigband recording session for many of my co-conspirators. When I found myself with an opening in the trumpet section, I knew I wanted a seasoned veteran, someone who had played on countless recordings and could act as a reassuring influence during the roiling storm of this high-stakes session. I thought instantly of Laurie Frink, and let out a deep, relieved sigh when she said yes.
Laurie was our living connection to the history of bigband music. She moved to New York in the late 1970s and played trumpet in the bands of Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell, Mel Lewis, and Bob Mintzer. She was a regular member of the forward-looking large ensembles led by Maria Schneider and John Hollenbeck, both of whom have also composed heartfelt dedications to her. Laurie was actually a constant presence in the trumpet section of many up-and-coming bigbands, and could be regularly found playing pass-the-hat gigs at Brooklyn’s Tea Lounge and similar venues. She was deeply interested in what younger composers were doing, willing to play the kinds of scrappy gigs that most other players of her stature would have considered beneath them. Plus, she was exactly the presence you want in a large ensemble, always ready with a quick quip to lighten the mood.
Laurie made her reputation as a lead player, but in her later years she settled into becoming a consummate section musician: selfless and centered, the connective tissue holding the trumpets together. She also became the brass guru of NYC. Everyone — and I mean everyone — studied with her. She took her teaching incredibly seriously, designing personalized exercises for her students based on their specific physiognomy. Trumpeter Dave Douglas describes his lessons with Laurie as “like a combination of therapy, gym instruction, and music lesson.” I played just enough trumpet growing up to know how incredibly physically demanding it is — consistency and endurance are frustratingly elusive, and it is shockingly easy to do irreparable damage. Laurie was known for helping players recover from what otherwise might have been career-ending injuries.
In her later years, Laurie struggled with her own health, and in July 2013 she died of cancer of the bile duct, at age 61. When I found out, I was flooded with a complex range of emotions: grief and loss for a beloved colleague, anguish for a legend gone well before her time, but also a sense of profound gratitude for everything she’d given us. I was in the process of writing a commission for a Portuguese big band, the Orquestra Jazz de Matosinhos: a challenging mixed-meter piece (the time signature changes almost every bar, in an unpredictable pattern) based not on traditional jazz harmony but on the all-interval tetrachord, a four-note structure beloved by big-M Modernist composers like Elliott Carter. It’s a piece that’s extremely tricky on the page, exactly the kind of thing most players of Laurie’s generation would bitch about having to read… and exactly the kind of challenge Laurie was always game for. (To be fair, she would probably have bitched about it too, but in judicious sotto voce one-liners only the trumpet section could hear.) I went back to square one and re-imagined the piece as a dedication to Laurie, bending it more towards blues language, and nodding at the classic big band shouts she played with Benny Goodman and Buck Clayton. I called it “All In,” which is exactly the sort of groan-inducing pun Laurie would have appreciated.
Nadje Noordhuis is the featured soloist on “All In” — she is a former protégé of Laurie’s, and a custodian of her legacy via the Laurie Frink Career Grant. She played the solo on Laurie’s trumpet.
Nadje shared this recollection from the Infernal Machines sessions:
There’s a photo of Laurie from the Infernal Machines session that’s burned into my mind. She’s sitting on an armchair, quietly warming up. She always played so incredibly softly before every performance – you could barely hear a sound. I wondered if it was so not to disturb anyone or whether it was a great technique to focus her embouchure. I never asked, but I believe it was for both reasons. It felt validating and incredibly important to be recording for the first time as part of a section with my teacher, as well with the amazing Seneca Black, Ingrid Jensen, and Tom Goehring. It was wonderful to feel like I finally belonged in New York, and that all my travels and hardships had been worth it in order to learn from her, and to play music at the highest level. Even though Laurie was sitting at the other end of the row, I constantly watched her for clues. She was quiet and serious when getting the job done. She was always ready to play. She never missed a note. I’m not kidding. Not one. Her intonation and sense of balance was impeccable. If the atmosphere was becoming tense, she would have the perfect one-liner to make everyone fall apart laughing. Laurie was the master of eliminating tension, both in life and on the instrument.
You’ll be able to hear “All In” when Dynamic Maximum Tension is released on Sept. 8, but until then, here’s a preview:
Today would have been Laurie Frink’s 72nd birthday. May her musicianship, inquisitiveness, generosity, and wit inspire all of us to make the most of the time we are given.