Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : August 2005

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Playing to the Audience
By Patrick Tandy

Mike Cerri (Photo: Judith Campos)

Trumpeter and Legal Aid Bureau litigator Mike Cerri onstage with Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes at the 2005 Federal Hill Jazz and Blues Festival in Baltimore
Photo: Judith Campos

“It’s a brutal instrument,” notes Mike Cerri, trumpeter for the Baltimore –based jazz-fusion sextet Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes. “You can ask any trumpet player: it’s the hardest instrument because it’s so unnatural to stick a piece of metal on your lips and blow into this tube. A trombone is wide open, [but] a trumpet is curled up, so you’re basically blowing against all this brass, trying to make a good sound. You try not to fight the instrument, but it’s always kind of a battle. [And] when you’re playing for four hours...it’s going to hurt.”

And Cerri, a family law litigator with the Legal Aid Bureau, Inc., in downtown Baltimore, knows the pain well, having voluntarily suffered the instrument’s “abuse” since the fourth grade.

“I was nine years old,” Cerri recalls. “I brought the trumpet home; I’d never had a lesson. I remember I sat in the front hallway of my parents’ house. I sat on the floor [with] the trumpet and I just kept making these sounds on it, for hours, and it drove my parents crazy. First they were laughing – then it wasn’t so funny. I just had to explore the instrument. I couldn’t put it down. So I knew from that moment that this was what I needed to do.”

Within a year, he was “playing for big audiences, school assemblies – that kind of thing.” Now, more than three decades later, Cerri and his bandmates are planning to celebrate their second album for Hyena Records (www.hyenarecords.com) – a New York label whose roster includes the likes of Dr. John, Bobby Darin and Thelonious Monk – with a record-release party on September 24 at the Creative Alliance in East Baltimore…

♦♦♦

All
musicians
that I know
are always
frustrated
that they
can't express
more of what
they've got
inside.

Mike Cerri

From his Massachusetts childhood, Cerri headed south, to the University of Miami, where as an undergraduate he studied musical composition. “I was convinced until I was 18 [that] I’d be a professional trumpet player,” he recalls. “Then I figured I could do a lot more [as a composer].”

While later pursuing his master’s and doctorate in composition from the University of Illinois, Cerri honed his skills by, among other things, providing piano accompaniment in local clubs and scoring background (or “incidental”) music for various kabuki theater productions around Chicago. However, the realities of life eventually caught up to the fledgling songwriter.

“I started out being a composer but realized that’s a very hard way to make a living,” Cerri admits. “I’d already started a family at that point. My son was on the way, and I [was] thinking, ‘That’s probably not a good way to do it.’”

Drawing on an interest in recording that dated back to his days in Miami, Cerri and his family migrated east in 1987 when he accepted a position as a recording engineer for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Fueled by his own curiosity and love of live music, Cerri spent the next 16 years attempting to capture the feel of the live “musical experience”, recording everything from orchestral music to rock ’n roll.

“I used to try to capture as much of the actual musical experience on the record as I could,” he explains. “I was convinced that you could do it if you were really focused well in the right environment, [that you] placed your microphones right, that you could really capture that. After 15 years or so I came to realize that’s absurd. You can’t even come close to the live experience. What you’re doing is creating something new. It’s kind of parallel to live music, but it’s not the same thing. The approach is different because, unless it’s a live recording where you’re playing to an audience, you’re basically playing to a microphone. You’re playing to the other musicians, so you’re thinking differently. You’re not reacting to the environment in the same way. You’re in a closed environment, usually you have headphones on, and the thought process and the feeling process is very different.”

“One theory is that musicians do records to get people to come to their gigs,” he laughs. “It’s like your way of advertising what you do.”

By the early 1990s, Cerri had all but abandoned the art of composition for his recording career. He continued to moonlight as an instrumentalist, however, in various jazz combos (and more than a few wedding bands), just to keep his hand in…

♦♦♦

Mike Cerri

Baltimore is a
cutting-edge city
for the arts,
but you never
hear about it
because people leave town.

Mike Cerri

“This band has been the core of my musical existence since 1993,” Cerri explains of his affiliation with Lafayette Gilchrist and the New Volcanoes – an ongoing stint that calls on all facets of Cerri’s experience. “Lafayette has a contract with Hyena Records. They feature him as an artist; we’re the band that plays on the whole record. When this band goes into the studio, I’m involved with the production of the records, so the old education still comes into play. When we go to the studio, Lafayette and I co-produce all the records, and I mix the stuff – that’s where my composition background helps.”

Following a handful of self-produced albums, the band issued its first national release, The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist, on Hyena in 2004 and has been building both critical and popular acclaim since.

“Because it has evolved over the years, this band has become kind of an institution unto itself,” notes Cerri, who attributes the music’s broad-based appeal with audiences to the eclectic influences each member brings to the band. “Basically, the music appeals to a pretty wide range because it covers a lot of generations of styles. They’re all-original compositions. It’s jazz, but it has influences from funk and R&B, Go Go…it’s more fusion than straight-ahead. I’m not really a straight-ahead jazz player. I’ve always been either avant-garde or fusion.”

Although Cerri has at times played numerous instruments (including piano, trombone and euphonium), time constraints now limit his playing to the trumpet. “We’re doing more concerts now than we used to,” notes Cerri, who along with the band will, at their busiest, play as many as four gigs in a month. And while financial limitations at times require pianist Gilchrest to go it alone (such as a recent solo gig in Detroit), the New Volcanoes regularly accompany their leader for regional gigs from New York to Washington, D.C. There are even rumors of possible European engagements.

“It’s a band that’s more into performance with an audience as opposed to playing background music in a club,” Cerri says. “I think we’re trying to focus more on college-age audiences now because people that age – their minds are open to anything, and they get excited, they get ideas, like maybe they could do something like that. We’re trying to draw that audience in.

“I think Baltimore is a cutting-edge city for the arts, but you never hear about it because people leave. They get their art developed and they leave town. Baltimore audiences are known for their skepticism and cynicism, so Baltimore is considered by the local musicians that I know [to be] a great place to learn your art, to develop your chops and to become a great musician. But you don’t want to try to make a living here because you can’t get any gigs, and nobody ever shows up to the gigs. It’s just that kind of town. We could probably play the Ottobar [in Baltimore] once a week, but we’d have to play for cover. Everybody in the band works, and a lot of them have families. They other guys really can’t get a babysitter, come out and play and make maybe 20 bucks, if they’re lucky. I’d do it – my wife would complain, but I’d play once a week if I could.”

♦♦♦

First admitted to the Maryland Bar in 2003, Cerri may be a relative newcomer to the practice of law, but, as his experience has taught him, “great” musicians are not always “born” at an early age.

“Lafayette didn’t start playing until he was 17 years old,” Cerri says of the self-taught bandleader. “But on the other hand, he [then] recognized immediately that it was something that he needed to do.

“I think you’ll find with most musicians who have been doing it for their whole lives that they generally teach themselves, but they’re always humble to the better players and always want to find out how they’re doing things. It’s usually like, ‘I need to play. I need to do this, so I just became as good as I could.’ All the musicians that I know are always frustrated that they can’t express more of what they’ve got inside. See, the instrument comes second; the first thing is what you’ve got inside that’s got to come out. Then you just need that instrument, because you have no other way to do it.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: August, 2005

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