Carter Eng: The One Thing


Carter Eng photo by Daniel Sheehan


Trumpeter Carter Eng can, on the surface, appear as if the prodigious sound he conjures from his horn is matter-of-fact, or second nature. It seems as though he is simply wandering down a path that had already been laid out for him. That no matter what else he might be doing in his life aside from music, would be just fine, too. Perhaps this appearance is the result of his time spent participating in and teaching martial arts – that sense of readiness, of using the power of the music to direct him, not the other way around. It may be a bit like following the Tao. It may tell the story that this path laid out for him might have led somewhere very different, if not for a grandfather who devotedly sat beside him as a ten-year-old elementary school trumpet student, and made sure that, no matter what he was doing, he did it with sufficient dedication and focus.

“If I had to sit in a big band and play lead trumpet the rest of my life, that would be fine,” mused Eng thoughtfully, while also acknowledging that leading a quintet as a trumpeter in jazz, with all the musical tools of improvisation in his hip pocket is an enticing, and more likely possibility. “I don’t really think of myself as being that much of an artistic person,” he adds. “If I didn’t do music, I probably would have done something like computer science.”

Eng’s leadership in February 2024 at the Seattle Jazz Fellowship essentially bore witness to where his path has taken him thus far. Through two sets of original music and an assortment of standard pearls, Eng delivered a bold, edgy sound and probing, melodic solos within the quintet format. His natural skills as a bandleader rose to the surface as well, exemplified by the band he put together. He was joined on the front line by fellow young lion, tenor saxophonist Jackson Cotugno. On the rise, nineteen-year-old pianist Roman Goron, someone Eng had met at a jam session, was joined in the rhythm section by a pair of top-shelf veterans. Bassist Michael Glynn and drummer Matt Jorgensen formed a backbone of artistry and experience, qualities that accompanied the band through two hour-long sets. The music was straight ahead, though chomping at the bit to run free. The evening seemed like a culmination of all the expectations heaped on the trumpeter since his days performing first chair in Scott Brown’s award-winning Roosevelt High School Jazz 1 band.

While a young Eng may have viewed music as a way to get out of certain classes as an elementary and middle school student, he knew by his junior year at Roosevelt that it was the only thing he wanted to do. He had become the most highly anticipated soloist in that band, performing as a shy, reserved young man playing the boldest and most dynamic of all band instruments – the trumpet. It seemed this odd marriage of sorts had become a choice with deep roots and a clear vision of what was to come.

Eng elected to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, a choice anchored in the belief that the city was a better fit for his personality than New York. He studied there under the tutelage of Michael Rodriguez, among others. “That’s the place where, after four years, I’ll be the best trumpet player,” he reasoned. He knew that the Bay Area would not have as many opportunities to play gigs and attend jam sessions. The benefit would be the lack of distraction from his primary goal of studying the trumpet in conservatory.

The results were highly noticeable in his playing and in how he saw himself as an artist. Not being sure where the next chapter of his career would happen, Eng decided to return to Seattle. It was immediately apparent he understood the “community” aspect of this jazz community.

In Seattle, he has set about learning who he is as an artist and what his priorities are. One example would be concerning the balance between composing and playing trumpet. Young jazz musicians coming from modern jazz schools generally have a strong desire to perform original music, whether their writing skills are deserving or not. Eng sees the benefit of both while emphasizing the value of performing standards in an innovative way within, but not restricted by, traditional form. “I really like hearing people who play original music, play standards,” he quips. He understands how all jazz musicians are united in the language standards present, in the blues and swing rhythm that is embedded deep in the roots of Black American music. “It’s not like everyone is playing the same thing; everyone has their own voice,” he explains, shirking criticisms of those who believe those qualities are somehow outdated.

Eng has discipline and focus that is all too rare in modern music. While he acknowledges that he “sucks in all ball sports,” it is perhaps his athletic roots in the martial arts that prepared him in a way no conservatory can. “It planted the seed of how to practice, how to break things down,” he says. It points to one who has benefited from many influences that could never enter the picture in high school or at conservatory. He has shared in the collective wisdom of Seattle trumpet and saxophone legend, Jay Thomas. He has benefited from his new friendships as a professional in Seattle, including that of trumpeter Thomas Marriott. In fact, when Marriott was out of town, Eng subbed for him at the Tuesday night gig at Underbelly in Pioneer Square. “Thomas had me at Underbelly when he was out of town last week – that meant a lot to me,” he says with great humility.

Don’t expect a debut recording in the near future from the young trumpeter. As one who knows him would expect, he will wait until a clear artistic conception of an album exists. “I have no idea what I want it to be,” he says. Now out of school and acting as a professional musician, he knows what the new parameters of his art have evolved into. “The environment is different. It’s serious now,” he acknowledges while mulling the possibility of returning to school to earn his master’s. “We’ll see where it goes.”



Posted on

April 23, 2024