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Adam Woolf's album 'Songs Without Words' treats us to the relatively rare and yet revelatory sound of the sackbut playing the solo lines of some popular and some less well-known works by Monteverdi, Castello, Fontana, Frescobaldi, Schütz and others, accompanied by a lively continuo group containing harp, theorbo, viol and harpsichord or organ. I have to admit that I was not quite sure what to expect when I first put this disc in the player; however, I was quickly won over by the astounding virtuosity of Adam Woolf in executing so deftly the sorts of fast diminutions that challenge players of treble instruments such as violin and recorder, and by the sheer beauty of his performance in the slower works. It was wonderful also to hear the assured and rhetorical playing of keyboardist Kathryn Cok- especially on the organ, which she really makes speak. The other members of the continuo ensemble (Siobhán Armstrong on harp, Nicholas Milne on viol and Eligio Luis Quinteiro on theorbo) do a splendid job in accompanying an instrument that they would rarely support as a solo line; Nicholas Milne also contributes a stunning performance of the solo line or Ortiz's recercada segunda in track 6. The liner notes provide some interesting context to the construction of this programme. Woolf cleverly combines the 19th-century concept of 'songs without words' with the 17th-century conception of the sackbut (and cornett) as instruments that closely imitated the human voice. Hence there is a combination in this programme of pieces with vocal or instrumental lines played by the sackbut, and of vocal lines which he plays decorated with diminutions. In the notes, Woolf also reminds is of the close relationship of the sackbut with voices and with plucked instruments. He points out that the descriptions by Praetorius, Mersenne and others of virtuoso sackbut players do not add up when we consider the absence of extant music for the solo sackbut: Woolf convincingly demonstrates the possibilities that exist in reconstructing the repertory for this instrument, by arranging and adapting 17th-century works. In sum, this is a thoughtful and innovative disc, which exhibits not only the expressive and technical capabilities of the sackbut, but also the creativity and artistic determination of this performer.

'Early Music' 2012


Songs Without Words is a recording of music based around vocal music but performed without singers. As Woolf explains in his inlay notes (which are excellent: clear, well researched, informative and very interesting), the music on this disc can be divided into three categories: pure vocal music, divisions on vocal music, and canzonas/sonatas/ricercadas.

Track one, Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum, is performed as written but with the sackbut replacing the voice. Here, Woolf's warm and singing tones leaves us in n doubt as to the sackbut's ability to imitate the voice. Indeed, every musician on this disc demonstrates their obvious knowledge of the 'text' they are performing...more so than many a singer.

The subsequent tracks show not only the vocal qualities of these instruments and musicians, but also their virtuosic and ornamental skills. There is beautiful variation of colour in the choice of accompanying instrumentation and order of pieces on this disc, which keeps the listener engaged to the end.

Sam Rogers - 'Musica Antiqua'

SFZ MUSIC, the independent label for His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, are proud to announce their latest release, the debut solo album by one of their core members, Adam Woolf. Adam, one of the most sought-after players in Europe, presents a varied programme of solos works from the early baroque designed to show off, or imitate, the purest-known form of music making - the human voice. He plays with the agility and virtuosity of a violinist or recorder player, without losing the power and velvet tone of his instrument. Ably accompanied by a crack group of continuo players, this is a haunting and enchanting recording, a valuable addition to any lover of Renaissance vocal and wind music, and concrete proof of the vocal qualities of the Sackbut.


Adam Woolf is a long-serving member of His Majesty’s Sackbuts & Cornetts, and this solo recital consists of transcriptions of 16th- and 17th-century vocal music. The sackbut follows the vocal line exactly, or adds ornamentation to create virtuoso display pieces. The results are unexpectedly mellifluous and I was unprepared for the panache of Woolf’s playing. It’s like a softer, mellower trombone sound, and the sleeve note quotes period sources praising 17th-century sackbut players who could match the agility and range of singers. Woolf’s technique never draws attention away from the music he’s chosen, or the idiomatic accompaniments on organ, theorbo, harpsichord or viola da gamba.

The slower pieces are especially successful- Schütz’s O Jesu nomen dulce with its lilting harp and theorbo backing, or Van Eyck’s mournful Dowland-influencedPavane Lachrymae, the only work on the disc played without accompaniment. - April 2011


This auspicious disc is one of the last arrivals for review in 2010 and if we were to go in for star ratings and Records of the Month (or Year) it would rate very highly for both.

2010 has been a year in which we have developed our interest in early instruments, to such extent that Steinways are beginning to feel anachronistic with such competitors as Kristian Bezuidenhout in Mozart, Malcolm Bilson and his team in Beethoven and Alexei Lubimov in Schubert.

Adam Woolf's solo CD is the first full-length commercially available recording which focusses on the sackbut as a solo instrument; precursor of the trombone, and more usually heard in solemn music in groups, e.g. His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts in Monteverdi's Vespers, it will come as a surpise that the tenor sackbut is a flexible, gentle and mellow-toned instrument which goes well with theorbo and harp. Usually I find CD marketing titles unhelpful and avoid them; this one however is spot on and apt for this 16 & 17 C music in which instrumentalists sought to imitate the sound and expression of the human voice, "the purest and most expressive form of music making" [Adam Woolf].

The disc is a joy from beginning to end, with the highest production values from engineers (Huw Morgan & Stephen Saunders) and booklet text and design (Adam woolf an Bridget Saunders).

The illustration above is of the whole group improvising (as sackbut players used to do) their version of Frescobaldi's Se L'aura, to round off a brilliant sequence of music making.

Peter Grahame Woolf



The sackbut was an instrument of the renaissance and baroque which we now know as the trombone. It played an important role in the 16th and 17th centuries. Used in an ensemble of 'cornetts and sackbuts', it provided support to singers or served to replace one or more of them. That was especially the case in liturgical music. Like the cornett it was used in purely instrumental music in the early 17th century. That said, there is hardly any music from this period which was specifically written for it.


In his liner-notes Adam Woolf quotes Michael Praetorius, the German composer and theorist, who referred to a sackbut player as "being able to execute rapid coloraturas and jumps on his instrument just as is done on the viola bastarda and the cornett". The French theorist Marin Mersenne writes about sackbut players who "play diminutions just as trumpets and all other wind instruments". Woolf then rightly asks: if sackbut players apparently had opportunities to show off their virtuosic capabilities of both player and instrument, what exactly did they play?


One answer is: ensemble music. A number of instrumental pieces by Italian composers from the first half of the 17th century had parts for sackbut which show the same amount of virtuosity as parts for violin or cornett. As a member of the Caecilia-Concert Woolf himself has played several such pieces. Examples can be found on their disc "Schmelzer & Co", reviewed here. I can't see any reason why Praetorius or Mersenne must have referred to playing of pieces for sackbut solo. On the other hand, it is remarkable that hardly any solo pieces have come down to us. It is quite plausible that sackbut players performed pieces which were originally intended for other instruments or pieces without a specific indication of the instrument.


A part of the programme is devoted to such pieces. The Sonata II by Dario Castello is written for a treble instrument, like the violin, the cornett or the recorder. Performance by the tenor sackbut demands transposition, but that was something of which any player of that time was capable. The Sonata VI by Fontana is from the composer's only collection of instrumental music. Although he was a violinist by profession, he indicates that the sonatas are for violin, cornett, bassoon, chitarrone, violoncino "or another similar instrument". Such formulas are hard to interpret correctly. It is a bit too easy to take this as an excuse to play the treble part of such a piece using the sackbut. The chitarrone is also mentioned, but I doubt that anyone would think of deploying this as an argument for playing the piece on the chitarrone with basso continuo. Whether such pieces were performed by sackbut players has to remain an open question.


But then, the programme as a whole can't be judged from a strictly historical point of view. It is very unlikely, for instance, that sackbut players would have played pieces from Jacob van Eyck's collection Der Fluyten Lusthof. It is questionable, for instance, how many copies of this collection of music for solo recorder would have found their way outside the Netherlands. Within the Netherlands music-making was largely restricted to the private homes of aristocrats and citizens. It seems quite unlikely that this included playing the sackbut. Also questionable is the instrumental performance of solo concertos for voice and basso continuo. In the renaissance it was quite common to perform vocal parts with instruments, but at that time the text was not central. Things changed in the first half of the 17th century. That makes the performance of pieces like Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum and Schütz's O Jesu, nomen dulce historically not very plausible. That said, I would be very happy if any singer would perform these sacred concertos in the way Adam Woolf plays them. In his liner-notes he emphasizes the need to pay attention to the text even if it ‘played’ instrumentally. That is exactly what he does, and some singers could learn from hsi example. It is just a shame the booklet doesn't include the lyrics of these pieces.


Specifically interesting are the items in which Woolf demonstrates the technique of divisions: the addition of ornaments to one or more lines from a vocal piece. He plays such divisions by Bassano over Luca Marenzio's madrigal Liquide perle Amor, and follows that example in his own divisions over Doulce mémoire by Pierre Sandrin and Anchor che col partire by Cipriano de Rore. Diego Ortiz wrote a famous treatise on the art of playing divisions. Although this was primarily intended for playing the viola da gamba, its importance goes far beyond that. It is interesting to hear some of the Ortiz pieces from this book at the sackbut.


From what I have written one may conclude that this programme is historically questionable as far as the choice of repertoire is concerned. To a large extent this is inevitable as we just don't know exactly what music sackbut players performed. It is Adam Woolf's virtue that he has almost single-handedly put the sackbut as a solo instrument on the map. Almost: the other performers on this disc have a fair share in the quality of this disc. Despite my remarks about the choice of music I have the greatest admiration for the achievement of this ensemble. The technical prowess of Adam Woolf and his colleagues is impressive. The Italian cornettist wrote: "The players of the sackbut are judged by their correct intonation, by their soft tone, by their avoiding a mooing sound (...)". Those qualities fully apply to Adam Woolf as well.


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