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Ryan Heinlein Returns To Wichita With The Project H

Clint Ashlock

Ryan Heinlein has been recording and releasing music with his band The Project H since 2009. What’s somewhat unusual about this band is that Heinlein has made the trombone the lead instrument for the group.

Jazz is a genre that has scores of trumpeters and saxophonists, and yet the trombone remains relatively rare. Heinlein says that he started writing his own tunes to showcase the possibilities of the instrument.

“Logistically, trombone is a little bit harder to execute in jazz,” he says. “We get called for big-band gigs, but as for combo gigs or small group gigs, they usually use a trumpet player or a sax player. So, I started writing for trombone just to make my own work.”

The trombone has a reputation as a difficult instrument to play in the jazz setting—one that requires razor-sharp accuracy—and that’s made it less attractive as a lead instrument to some jazz players.

“I think it’s great for jazz,” Heinlein says. “If a trombone can be played accurately and well? Man, it’s gorgeous. It’s incredibly versatile. But logistically it’s difficult to execute. Whereas on a trumpet or a saxophone you depress a key or a valve, on trombone you move a slide. And between two positions where a note would be centered, [it] could be anywhere from four inches to—depending on how far you go—three feet. Even between first and second position, if it’s three to four inches, technically there’s an infinite amount of mistakes you can make in four inches. You can be out of tune. If the note doesn’t sound exactly right, it doesn’t speak well. Then you put air into it and consider the amount of tubing you have to blow through, it’s hard.”

Since The Project H’s early days, Heinlein has received praise for his compositions, but he says that he was initially nervous about sharing his work with others.

“I remember that first rehearsal for The Project H,” he says. “It was four of my closest friends, all just meeting one evening at Wichita State. But it’s really like you’re putting yourself out there. Because, to me, writing is incredibly personal. Every song that I write, it’s about something in my life. Especially the early stuff, it was about something that had happened to me. Putting yourself out there to these people—even though they’re some of your closest friends—it’s a little nerve-wracking.”

Today, his compositional and band leading abilities have earned him an impressive amount of attention in both Kansas City and Wichita music circles--not bad for a musician who says that his main instrument was not his first choice.

“I was living in Hutchinson, and my best friend’s dad was the band director. They have the instrument try-out day,” he recalls. “What you did was you wrote down the three instruments you would want to try. Keep in mind this is in 1990. I wrote down saxophone. Everybody wanted to play saxophone. Saxophone’s what got girls. I was in fifth or sixth grade, I didn’t care about girls. But saxophone was cool, like the saxophone guy from The Lost Boys. It was, like, ‘Yes! That guy is awesome!’”

Heinlein continues, “My second choice was cello. I picked cello strictly because of the beginning of an Anthrax tune—‘Be All End All’—there’s a cello solo. I thought, ‘That’s awesome! I want to play that!’ It was incredibly short sighted. If I would have learned those eight measures, it would have been a case of, ‘Alright! My musical career is done!’ Trombone was my last choice.”

Why trombone? “I put that on that sheet of paper just because my older brother played it, and my dad played it, so we had a trombone. I was horrible at saxophone and cello,” he says. “It was the stereotypical sound of a beginning musician trying to make a sound on one of those instruments--kick that up about three levels and that’s how bad I was at those. But I could make a sound on trombone. My band director put me on trombone, and there you go. I wish it was something more along the lines of, ‘Oh, I always wanted to play it!’ But oh, no. It was my third choice. But I love it now.”

The Project H performs at Roxy’s Downtown Wednesday evening at 8 p.m.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.