Thursday, December 9, 2010

Talking with jazz pianist and composer Bryan Nichols

Bryan Nichols by John Whiting
It’s a good time to be Bryan Nichols. Earlier this year, he won a prestigious McKnight Artist Fellowship for Performing Musicians. He’s about to go into the studio for his first two recordings as leader. He just bought a new piano, a Boston grand, replacing his ancient Steinway upright.

He has his own trio, quartet, quintet, and large group (called We Are Many) and plays in several other bands including Gang Font, Off the Map, the James Buckley Trio, and the Zacc Harris Quartet. Plus he and his wife, optometrist Marcie Nichols, are expecting their first child in July.

His quintet—Nichols on piano, Michael Lewis and Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, Eric Fratzke (stepping in for James Buckley) on bass, JT Bates on drums—will play the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul this weekend. We spoke about music and musicians, McKnights and composing.

PLE: Why a quintet?

Bryan Nichols: One of the things I love about music is the social aspect. I like the possibilities of having more musicians, more interaction. We’d been playing as a quartet with a mixed cast—[saxophonists] Mike Lewis or Brandon Wozniak, [bassists] Adam Linz or James Buckley, [drummers] JT Bates or sometimes Sean Carey. Brandon and Mike have such interesting individual styles and musical approaches that I thought, maybe I should try to get both of them when they’re in town. So that solidified the concept. It offers opportunities for things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise. And if someone’s gone—if Mike is out with [Andrew] Bird or Brandon’s gone with the Dave King Trucking Company—we can do a quartet.

PLE: Who’s playing what?

BN: Mike is playing all three horns [soprano, alto, tenor]. Brandon is playing alto and tenor.

PLE: So you basically have five horns in the band.

BN: That’s right. To me, one of the coolest things about having both of these guys is if I go from Brandon on alto and Mike on tenor and switch them, that completely changes the sound of the band. They have really different approaches on all of their horns.

PLE: Why these particular musicians?

BN: I’ve known Brandon for 4–5 years, everyone else since I was a teenager. We’ve known each other forever in different configurations, different bands.

I love playing with Mike all the time. JT is one of my favorite drummers in the whole world. He’s someone I write music for, and he knows it before he looks at it. He’s one of the musicians I feel the most connected with, in terms of ideas that flow together. I grew up listening to his band the Motion Poets and probably stole stuff from him.

[Regular bassist] Buckley is out with the Blenders this weekend, and when I thought about who I would want to sub for him, Fratzke made perfect sense. I’ve been watching him since I was 18 or 19 and working with him in Gang Font. A brilliant but enigmatic musician. He doesn’t play in improvised music contexts a lot, except in Dave King’s groups, but I know he can really kill this music.

PLE: Will Fratzke play electric or acoustic bass?

BN: He’ll play electric bass. I don’t know if he even plays acoustic. He’s such a cool musician, such a thinking musician, that I care more about the things he brings to the music. Plus his electric bass is amazing.

PLE: Let’s talk about the McKnight. What difference has it made in your life?

BN: The short answer is, it has enabled me to do some things I probably wouldn’t have done, or would have done later. We’re recording the quintet in December and the large group, We Are Many, in January. I’ll probably bring both of those records out in 2011. That takes a lot of resources. Other than that, I haven’t done anything different. For the most part, I still take the same gigs.

PLE: Is the McKnight opening doors for you?

BN: It hasn’t yet, but I’m not saying it won’t, because it’s something people know about and respect. People seem to be excited about it. There’s a cachet that goes along with it. I’m one of the first jazz musicians to get it. [Earlier recipients included Dave Karr and Dean Magraw.]

I now have the resources to do projects that make me happy, like a quintet record rather than a trio. If I had wanted to take a hiatus from day-to-day gigs, I could have. It’s such a cool opportunity to do what you want. The only thing you’re contractually obligated to do is send them a thank-you note.

Bryan Nichols by John Whiting
PLE: When you play the AQ this weekend, will we hear mostly original compositions?

BN: The music will be 99 percent original. There’s a chance we’ll do one cover each night, but that will be the maximum. I think we have about 15 songs in the quintet book, and probably about 12 of those have been written within the past year.

PLE: When you’re composing, what’s your starting point?

BN: It can be different things. I might be listening to other people’s music, and a kernel of an idea pops into my head, and I sit down at the piano and try to develop it. Maybe I’ll hear a melodic fragment, or something else I want to turn into a tune. I might write it down right away or sit on it for a couple of days and see if anything else happens to it. If I forget it, it probably wasn’t very good anyway. Then it’s just a matter of experimenting, improvising through it, trying to do different stuff with it. At some point, I’ll put it to paper and decide—do I like it? Does it make sense as a piece? As something to improvise over? Does it work for a particular group of musicians?

PLE: What do you want to say as a composer?

BN: There isn’t always something specific I want to say. Sometimes I’m trying to portray a particular emotion, or a particular event, or I’m trying to evoke a mood. But not always. Sometimes there’s a melodic idea I like and want to turn into a composition and investigate it further. What I’m trying to do is make honest musical statements about the things I like as a musician, and where I am musically.

PLE: Where are you musically?

BN: I’m still learning as a player, learning as a composer, learning as a bandleader. As Dave Karr says, “I’m still trying to figure it out.” Dave Karr is an amazingly brilliant musician, and if he’s still trying to figure it out, I might as well quit now.

But here’s a statement of where I’m at this moment, musically speaking: I’m a 31-year-old person living in Minneapolis, a small- to medium-sized urban area, and here is my perspective on music and life. That perspective doesn’t fit into any one song or group. Each song I write, each song I play, each group I play with is an aspect of my musical personality. The music has an emotional impact for me, and I hope it does for other people—that they hear a person being honest and musical. Aside from that, I hope to keep going from there, so each new ending point is a starting point at the same time.

PLE: Have you been practicing answering this question?

BN: No. It’s the same as my music. All off the top of my head.

The Bryan Nichols Quintet plays Friday-Saturday, Dec. 10-11, at the Artists' Quarter in the basement of the Hamm Building in St. Paul. $12 cover.

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