It's been a long time since Paul Olesuk has tested his trombone mettle in a competition in front of judges.
As a professional musician, he plays with the Leah Randazzo Group, the Hartford Jazz Orchestra, and Komboloko, a Springfield-based salsa band. While he's used to a certain level of critique from the audiences who come to see him and his bandmates play, typically his performance isn't part of a contest.
Last weekend, though, Olesuk was one of three finalists to compete in the National Solo Jazz competition held by the Eastern Trombone Workshop in Fort Meyer, Virginia. The annual event is held by the U.S. Army Band "Pershing's Own," and while this was his first time there as a competitor, he'd been down many times before. For trombonists, the event is like a pilgrimage to Mecca—a wonderful place to celebrate their favorite instrument and to network with like-minded musicians.
Earlier this year, Olesuk submitted a CD of his performance to judges and found himself no longer in the audience, but up on the stage.
One of his competitors had trained at Berklee College of Music and the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz and had also been a finalist in the international trombone competition. The other was a sophomore at Vanderbilt University. Two of the judges were trombonists from the hosting Army Band, and a third was a well known jazz drummer.
Though he came in third, Olesuk considers being a finalist at all to be a triumph, and when interviewed afterwards, he was still exuberant about the weekend. He hadn't entered to win, but to see what would happen. Sending in his sample disc, he'd known winning was a long shot—as passionate as he is about both jazz and the trombone, he's never much cared for listening to or performing what traditionalists call "jazz trombone." For one thing, he plays his jazz with a classical trombone, and he plays with a valve.
He described the Vanderbilt student's performance as being "old school, bluesy, and kind of in-pocket, straight-up jazz trombone." He felt the Berklee graduate had "a greater harmonic vocabulary and a more modern approach," which is why he probably won. His own performance he described as being more "groove. More soul, similar to what we play in the Randazzo group. I like to go for more timbre and styling. My playing's more vocal."
Entering the competition, Olesuk was curious what the more hardcore traditionalists would make of his playing, and he was edified by the warm reaction he got. He noted that while the two jazz trombone-playing judges regularly gave him sixes and sevens in their evaluations, the drummer judge regularly rated him a couple points higher. Olesuk would like to think this points to his ability to play jazz well with others, as opposed to adhering to an orthodox jazz trombone style.
Several audience members, he said, sought him out to thank him for his iconoclastic approach, and to say their understanding of what a trombone can do had been broadened by his untraditional techniques.
Olesuk returned to the Valley feeling more confident and energized about the path he's chosen with his instrument of choice. "It gave me a better sense of context and helped me know where I fit in." He's hoping to infuse that momentum into a new trombone and string quartet he's been playing with, FlavaEvolution, who plan to begin playing soon at a Valley venue near you.