Gerard Presencer - Trumpet

David Gallant talks to the leading trumpeter about how he got started, the instruments he’s played over the years and his all time favourite choice.

As head of the department for jazz studies at the Royal Academy of Music, Gerard Presencer believes that you need to get people’s ears working, before you get bogged down in the technicalities of jazz theory.
Gerard Presencer - Trumpet
“I grew up being saturated with the sounds of jazz,” says Presencer. “My father had a massive record collection, which seemed to be on the turntable all the time – he was a great enthusiast.” His father also had a tenor horn which he used to leave around the house. “I used to pick it up and blow it – like any kid would,” says Presencer. “A friend of my father’s, who played trumpet with the BBC, reckoned that I had a natural aptitude for the instrument, so by the age of nine, I was having lessons at school with the local peripatetic teacher.” After graduating to a private teacher, his father sent him for lessons every week at the Guildhall. “There I was,” continues Presencer, “a 12-year-old, unofficially sitting in on the jazz course.”

His father also decided to open a jazz club on Sunday nights at Ziggy’s in Gt. Portland Street, where Presencer got the opportunity to play alongside the likes of Courtney Pine, Jim Mullen and Don Weller – talk about a privileged upbringing! Around the same time, Presencer also started going to NYJO [National Youth Jazz Orchestra] rehearsals “which was a baptism of fire, as up to that point, I had really only been playing by ear. So I had to get much more disciplined, which conveniently slotted in nicely with the development of my jazz sensibility.”

By the time he was around 14, Presencer was playing gigs all the time – so naturally something had to give. “I got kicked out of school when I was 16,” he remembers, “because I just wasn’t there!” So he tried to get into the Guildhall, but at 16, I was clearly too young.” There followed a couple of years of playing in various outfits and bands, before being invited to record with Charlie Watts’ acclaimed quintet, when only 19. “That was great,” remembers Presencer, “as not only was I playing with some great musicians, but I also got to meet trumpeter Red Rodney. Red suggested that I should play a really small trumpet with a really small mouthpiece right into the microphone. “That way,” as he said, “if you have an idea, it’s not difficult to play it on the trumpet.”

Coincidentally, a few years later, Wynton Marsalis advised Presencer on the complete opposite – big trumpet, big mouthpiece, big sound. As the years have gone by, Presencer has struck a happy compromise between the two. He continues, “of course I want that lovely big dark sound, but I also need a trumpet that is responsive and does all the other things that I do in the commercial world – like the pop stuff. So it needs a bright edge to it when I want to go for it.”

To this end Presencer has recently got together with Tim Oldroyd of the Geneva company to design an instrument that will accommodate all his needs. “We have designed them to be as versatile as possible,” he says, “we’ve taken the instrument back to the basics, no modern innovations like the reversable lead pipe, but you can still get the dark sound for when your playing jazz.” Presencer is clearly very proud of this new association. “They’re beautifully made,” he continues, “we’re calling them the ‘Platypus’ range – after my band!” This will be Presencer’s first new trumpet since he bought his custom “Max” at the age of 19 from the New York maker Allen Colin. “The Max is nice and it’s dark,” pronounces Presencer, “but it’s falling to pieces – it’s got holes in it! And although they gave me a new one for nothing, no way is it as good as the first one.”

Getting into teaching though has been as he puts it, “the most enlightening part of my musical development. When you’re out there gigging, there’s a lot of stuff you learn that you don’t articulate. I played stuff for the first time and realised – ‘Oh, that’s what I do,’ and then I can impart that to other people – and then perhaps learn it even better myself!” He advises his students not to go for the big horn with the big mouthpiece. As he says, “they’re fighting it all the time, and they end up shooting themselves in the foot.” He continues, “they’re much better off with a medium sized trumpet like a Bach 37 with a 3C mouthpiece. It works much better and you can do everything on it.”

Presencer is also very conscious of the other responsibilities that he has towards his students. “My biggest responsibility is that my students work when they leave. A lot of jazz musicians are sort of self-alienating on stage a lot of the time, and my students have to learn that the ones who make it are the ones that have a relationship with their audience – their music travels beyond the stage. It’s no good having a secret coded language that nobody else can understand. There are no two ways about it – we have to communicate’.

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