Ian Carey is a trumpeter, composer, arranger, bandleader and instructor, who “asks deep musical questions and comes up with compelling answers” (Bill Kirchner, editor, The Oxford Companion to Jazz).
Born in 1974 in Binghamton, New York, Carey grew up in a house suffused with music and art. His mother, the late Judi Carey, worked as an illustrator and arts fundraiser. His father Philip is an exhibit designer and gallery-represented graphic artist with a long-running series illustrating his vivid dreams. Also an adventurous vocalist, he performed with the Gregg Smith Singers in the 1960s, a chorus that frequently worked with Igor Stravinsky and won a Grammy in 1966 for the Columbia LP Ives: Music for Chorus.
Ian’s first musical outlet was singing in a church choir, where his exposure to a brass quintet turned his eye to the trumpet. He started on cornet and French horn in elementary school, but switched back to trumpet for good in high school after his family relocated to Folsom, California (site of a now-famous high school jazz program). He studied trumpet with Sacramento jazz icon Tom Peron and spent many evenings soaking up the sounds of local musicians including Jessica Williams, Joe Gilman, Jimmy Robinson, and Bud Spangler.
Two years of classical trumpet studies at the University of Nevada in Reno gave Carey the opportunity to play with visiting artists Eddie Daniels and Ernie Watts, and with the Reno Philharmonic. Transferring to The New School in New York City in 1994, he studied trumpet with Cecil Bridgewater, Vincent Penzarella, Charles Tolliver, Laurie Frink, and John McNeil, and composition with Bill Kirchner, Henry Martin, and Maria Schneider. He honed his improvisational chops in small group classes with Joanne Brackeen, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Harper, and Reggie Workman, and during the next seven years he had opportunities to perform with a diverse group of players including Ravi Coltrane, Ted Curson, Eddie Bert, Gregoire Maret, Loren Schoenberg, Rory Stuart, Marion Brown, Ali Jackson, Aaron Alexander, and Eugene Osborne Smith.
After graduating from the New School with a B.A. in Jazz and Contemporary Music, he spent five years with a night job as a proofreader, which left him little time for to sit in at jam sessions and gather with colleagues, let alone pursue gigs. “It was incredibly stimulating, but you end up having to take something totally unrelated to music, and that got very frustrating,” Carey recalls. When a friend hooked him up with a sublet in San Francisco in 2001, he was ready for a break from the Gotham grind. “I felt right away that this was a better situation,” Carey says. “I met good players right away and started playing. And I lucked into some design work that was much more creative than what I’d been doing in New York.”
Quickly recognized as a formidable improviser, Carey performed around the Bay Area with top-notch ensembles including: the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, the Contemporary Jazz Orchestra, Tony Corman's Morchestra, Adam Theis’ Realistic Orchestra, Matt Small's Crushing Spiral Ensemble, accordionist Rob Reich’s Circus Bella All-Star Band, the Fred Randolph Quintet, the Nathan Clevenger Group, the Adam Shulman Sextet, and the City Church Little Big Band; and shared the stage with vocalists Ed Reed and Betty Fu, pianists Ben Stolorow, Don Alberts, and the late B.J. Papa, saxophonists Dayna Stephens and Noel Jewkes, as well as visiting luminaries including pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and vocalist/composer Molly Thompson. But his ambition was always to create a band focusing on his original material. He got the chance when he landed a regular spot at Financial District watering hole The House of Shields in 2002. The gig lasted for four years, enough time to develop a book of some 40 original tunes.
He first documented the group on 2005’s Sink/Swim, an impressive debut session featuring pianist Adam Shulman, saxophonist and flautist Evan Francis, bassist Fred Randolph, and drummer Jon Arkin. By the time he released 2010’s critically hailed Contextualizin', the band had consciously sidestepped the hard-bop sound by foregrounding Francis’s highly accomplished flute work. In developing the music for Roads & Codes, his third album on his Kabocha Records label, Carey wanted to explore more intricate writing, and move further away from head-solo-head conventions, so he recruited saxophonist Kasey Knudsen to expand the group to a "Quintet+1" format.
“Something I learned from Maria Schneider is to tailor solo sections to strengths of the player,” Carey says. “I don’t just have everyone play over the same changes. Many tunes have two or three different solo sections.”
Featuring original compositions as well as new treatments of works by Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky, and Neil Young, along with original comic-book-inspired cover art by Carey (who day-lights as a designer and illustrator), Roads & Codes was a critical success, garnering praise from DownBeat ("a highly skilled band of improvisers... 4-1/2 stars"), Doug Ramsey's Rifftides ("keep[s] the listener’s attention not through volume, velocity and extended sorties into the stratosphere, but with storytelling and a burnished tone"), NPR's California Report ("the work of a musician pursuing his own thoughtful, painterly vision"), and author Ted Gioia ("a very underrated player, and a talent to watch"), and turning up on multiple "best of 2013" lists.
Carey's next project was a distinct change of pace: he teamed up with his friend and longtime collaborator pianist Ben Stolorow to release 2014's Duocracy, an intimate collection of standards from the well-known ("How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "All the Things You Are") to the less-frequently heard ("Little White Lies" and Mancini's "Two for the Road").
“It’s super-naked, and that was intimidating at first, especially once the tape started rolling, but it’s also really freeing. On my last album I felt like I was trying to build something perfect,” Carey says, referring to Roads & Codes. “This was about going in and enjoying playing with each other, about playing jazz and seeing what we could come up with, and letting these tunes shine.”
Duocracy received praise from DownBeat ("a lively trip down a straightahead path, never veering far from the expected route but obviously deriving a refreshing joy from the familiar sights"), and Jazz Weekly ("Carey’s got a big, fat and wondrous tone and he fills the room while Stolorow mixes stride chords and bop lines to perfection"), and appeared in "Best of 2014" lists from Arnaldo DeSouteiro's "Jazz Station" and W. Royal Stokes.
In 2013 Carey received a grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music to compose a new four-movement suite, titled "Interview Music," for his Quintet+1 (this time with multi-reed master Sheldon Brown taking the place of Evan Francis, who has since departed for New York), which was premiered September 20, 2014 at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. (The suite was recorded in spring 2015 at the legendary Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, and is due for release in early 2016.) He was also the recipient of the 2014 Musical Artists Award from Pasquina Publishing, for his "musical accomplishments and originality as both a composer and jazz performer." And in 2014 and 2015, he was among the runners-up in the "Rising Star" trumpet category of the DownBeat Critic's Poll.
In 2015 Carey joined musical friends Bob Kenmotsu, Matt Clark, and Doug Miller on drummer Bryan Bowman's album Like Minds, a well-received collection of Bowman's original music which All About Jazz called "a hidden treasure and a gem of an album." He also appeared on the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra's debut album Cheap Rent (which received 4-1/2 stars from Downbeat).
In 2016 Carey was awarded a second grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, this time to compose a set of pieces for a new 7-piece ensemble, WOOD/METAL/PLASTIC. He was also featured in Thomas Erdmann's How Jazz Trumpeters Play Music Today (Mellen Press) along with 11 other noted trumpeters including Christian Scott, Cuong Vu, Wadada Leo Smith, the late Ted Curson and others.
In addition to his playing and composing, Carey has also been active as a music instructor for many years, teaching private lessons in trumpet, improvisation, harmony, theory, ear training, and composition. He has taught a wide age range of students, from elementary school, to professionals, to adults returning to music, and has been a guest instructor at Stanford University, Santa Rosa Junior College, and California Jazz Conservatory.
Carey is also an avid writer and blogger; his post "How Not to Become a Bitter White Jazz Musician" was mentioned by trumpeter Nicholas Payton as "the most brilliant piece that I have ever read about the dynamic of a White person in Black American Music." His humor writing has also been published at McSweeney's.
“Sometime when I was in my twenties,” Carey says, “I realized that there are so many great, amazing players out there that the context in which I do what I'm doing is going to be how I differentiate myself, and for me that's writing my own tunes and doing my own things within them. I really love learning old jazz tunes and learning all the things you're supposed to know, but I feel like you can do that forever and never catch up to the greats. You have to say at some point, ‘This is my thing, and I'm gonna do my thing.'”