When flutist Greg Pattillo chose to play the flute, he didn’t know what it sounded like.
As a fourth grader, Pattillo decided to pursue flute in his elementary school band after reading a brochure with pictures and descriptions of different musical instruments.
“Me and my mom went to the music store. I got a flute, and I thought it was pretty rad,” he said emphasizing each word as though articulating a musical phrase filled with marcato accents.
Though excited about his new instrument, Pattillo grew keen to learn at a faster rate and expand his knowledge of music.
“I begged my mom for lessons, and I got them, and [joined].. the local youth symphony orchestra,” he said. “Quickly, my life started revolving around music.”
Ultimately, he formed a group with some friends called Project Trio, which is based in New York and includes flute, cello and bass.
Pattillo began his training through the Suzuki method, which emphasizes learning by ear rather than reading music. As a teenager, he mainly focused on classical repertoire and participated in various competitions, which led him to earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in flute performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
After completing an in-depth study of flute, Pattillo launched his career as a flutist that beat boxes into his instrument, drawing on bluegrass techniques employed by string instruments for inspiration. “For me, music was just a cool puzzle. You could figure out tricks and tropes in music, and it was cool,” Pattillo said.
He said that as a solo musician, the New York subways were like his lab, enabling him to experiment with different musical ideas to see which would garner most attention. He also used reactions of passersbys in the subway to figure out which styles best suited moments of beat boxing.
“You don’t know [what musical compositions] work with beat boxing until you actually get out there and see what people like. I learned that dropping… [The] Mario Brothers [theme] with beat box worked really well in the New York subways. It totally turned heads, and people thought it was really cool,” he said. “Sometimes you think [some originals] are fire until you actually get up in front of people, and [those ideas] fall flat.”
After dedicating himself to building a solo career, he and two others he went to college with — double bassist Peter Seymour and cellist Eric Stephenson — banded together to form a group called Project Trio.
Though the group is comprised of flute, cello and bass, an unusual combination of instruments, Project Trio’s decision to form was rooted in their ability to work together.
“We formed the group because we got along together, and we had tastes in music that really bounced off of each other, and we could easily build tunes, arrange music, and write tunes. And, we’ve been going at it for 11 years now, and we have a seemingly endless supply of music to create and to play with,” Pattillo said.
All of Project Trio’s members also “wanted control over our musical projects. If you sit in a symphony, even if you’re the first chair flute, you never get to pick what you play. Also, sometimes, when you’re in a big group like that, it’s a little anonymous,” Pattillo added.
The trio’s musical numbers often meld different styles of music together; and, they attempt to do each musical tradition justice while capturing its essence: “We’re really careful about not stepping on anyone’s toes. We have fun distilling the essence of a style [and questioning things like] ‘what makes jazz jazz?’”
In addition to incorporating multiple styles into one piece, the trio also strays away from typical voicing. Normally, in a trio of their instrumentation, the flute would play the melody, the bass plays the bass line, and the cello plays chords. But, Project Trio often flips that. For example, Pattillo said they might play a piece where the bass plays the melody and the flute plays harmonic layers underneath, in lieu of being able to play chords.
Project Trio’s experimentation has led them to compose much of their own music, though Pattillo said they “will accept any tune under any circumstance.” He said sometimes, the trio will play something “fully written,” and other times, an idea will spring from “some dude being like ‘what do you guys think of this riff?’ and [going] from there… We’ve tried it all, and it’s all valuable.”
“Being creative is a wild endeavor because sometimes it seems [like] for a hundred things you create, there’s only a handful of things in there that are gems. But, we never would have got [those gems] if we hadn’t thrown all that other stuff out. And so, we’re always mashing ideas… we do it all together, and we have a lot of fun doing it,” he added.
While much of the trio’s music is composed, they make room for improvisation in most of their songs, especially during solo sections. He said the improvised sections are some of their favorite to play because they constantly challenge each other to play something even better.