Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A night at the Artists' Quarter: Bryan Nichols Quintet

Bryan Nichols
Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013: Bryan Nichols, piano; Michael Lewis, saxophones; Brandon Wozniak, saxophones; James Buckley, bass; JT Bates, drums

From the looks on the musicians’ faces, the responses of the SRO crowd, and the comments we heard later in the week from people who had been there, Saturday was a very good night for the Bryan Nichols Quintet. It was the second night of what’s likely to be Nichols’ final weekend at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, since the club is scheduled to close January 1.

On the first night, the quartet (Nichols, Wozniak, Buckley, Cory Healey on drums) played music by Duke Ellington. Saturday’s set list was all original compositions by Nichols. “Where else can you go,” he asked rhetorically on Friday, “and tell a club owner, ‘I can play the weekend, but with two different bands, and we’ll do two completely different things,’ and the owner says, ‘Sure, that’s great’?”

Nichols has been coming to the AQ to listen and play since he was a teenager. He and AQ owner Kenny Horst have a relationship that reaches back almost 20 years. At the close of Friday’s second set, after the quartet played Ellington’s “Do Nothing ’Til You Hear from Me,” he took a moment to talk about the AQ, which he called, in all sincerity, “this hallowed place.”

Nichols is a terrific young pianist, one of the best I’ve heard, and the most consistently interesting, surprising and satisfying. His compositions are varied and individually intriguing. He’s developing his own sound as a composer, but his sound is a house with many rooms. His music can be melodic and dissonant, sharp-edged and spikey, bluesy and laid-back. He writes a beautiful ballad. 

There’s an overarching sense of confidence and optimism in his music; the title of the first (and so far only) quintet album, released in 2011, is “Bright Places,” which fits perfectly. His compositions tease you and draw you in. Some have clearly hearable structures, others seem completely free, until you notice that two or three of the musicians are playing long, elaborate, rhythmically tricky passages in unison. 

His solos are formidable, and he leaves room for everyone else to take the spotlight; since they all have much to say, your focus shifts naturally from the piano to one or both saxes, to Buckley on the bass, to Bates on the drums.

It’s music with which, if you’re willing, you become totally engaged and responsive, whether Nichols is doing two completely different things with each hand, or Lewis is shouting “Ahhhh!” during one of his fiery solos, or Bates is running the tip of a stick across a cymbal, or Buckley is playing one of his song-like, lyrical passages.

“When I put this band together,” Nichols joked at one point during the evening, “I wanted the strongest people I know with the fragilest egos.” Paging through my notes from the evening, I find these: “It must be amazing to write music for these players and hear what they do with it.” “It’s possible, even highly likely that this is one of the best quintets anywhere.” “I feel lucky to be here.”

Saturday's setlist (courtesy Bryan Nichols)
Bryan Nichols
Michael Lewis
Brandon Wozniak
James Buckley
JT Bates
The quintet
Wozniak, packed up and ready to go, spends a few moments
at the bar with Davis Wilson, the AQ's MC and doorman

On Sunday I spoke with Nichols about the Artists’ Quarter, what it has meant to him as a musician and a person, and where we go, if anywhere, when it closes.

PLE: What is your history with the Artists’ Quarter?

Bryan Nichols: When I was 14 or 15, I was introduced to jazz through the MITY program [Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth]. That’s where I met Mike Lewis; his father Greg was a teacher there. I started seeking out jazz clubs. I knew about the Dakota in Bandana Square [its original location, before moving to Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis]. And I heard about the Artists’ Quarter, a basement club on Jackson Street [before moving to the Hamm Bldg.]. I started checking out shows down there. I saw Power Circus with Dean McGraw and Anthony Cox. [Pete Whitman’s sextet] Departure Point. Happy Apple in all of its initial iterations.

When I was a sophomore in high school, Kenny started putting on these Saturday afternoon jam sessions. I didn’t even have my license yet, so a friend drove me. Kenny would pay a house piano and bass player and people would show up and sit in. That’s how I met [bassist] Michael O’Brien. One time he wasn’t there and Kenny had gotten Adam Linz to play. Adam had given half his money to JT [Bates] so there would be a decent drummer. That’s how I met those guys.

I’d go to gigs and those Saturday jam sessions. I wouldn’t miss a Saturday if I could. It was something I planned around. I’d get to play with people and learn the tunes they played. A lot of the connections I initially made in the jazz world came through there. Kenny was always around on those days, and he was nice. I’d talk to him, he’d talk to me, and there was that intimidation factor, but he was always cool.

The Dakota was nice, too, but the musicians seemed inaccessible. It was also a restaurant, and you were supposed to order food. It was more expensive and higher-class. At the AQ, the musicians were accessible and approachable. You could talk to them. People went there specifically to hear the music. To me, that was cool, that the music could be the focal point.

By age 18 or 19 I was sitting in on some people’s gigs, and going to gigs by people I knew – Happy Apple, Motion Poets. Eventually, in 2000 or maybe 1999, I got my own weekend there with a group we called the Melodious Thugs. It was me and Dave King and Mike Lewis and Adam Linz playing Thelonious Monk music. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but that was an arrival point for me. It was something. It was great.

I started playing there in the summers when I was home from college. I’d come home on winter breaks and play there. I moved to Chicago in 2001, and when I moved back in 2005, Kenny started calling me for gigs. I became sort of a regular guy there, a junior member of the scene, and I’ve played there ever since. I’d get occasional sideman stuff. Then Kenny started giving me weeknights with my own group, and calling me to play with national people who were touring without a rhythm section. People like Eric Alexander, Bob Sheppard, Bill Goodwin, Kendra Shank.

I had my CD release there [in 2011]. Unfortunately, that was the same night The Bad Plus played their Stravinsky show at the Loring, but still, it had to be there. That place has been part of my life for 19 years.

It’s kind of crazy to think I’ve been playing the AQ for more than half of my life. From jam sessions when I was 15 to really playing there at 19, occasional weekends when I was home from college at 19, 20, 21, then more regular gigs when I moved back at 25. It’s been a minute.

What was the first thing you thought when you heard that the AQ will close at the end of the year?

I guess the first thing was shock and disbelief, because it’s such an institution. The AQ! It’s always been around – it has to always be around.

I was sad for Kenny because no one wants to be forced out of their business. Then sad for myself because that’s where I play. I played there 30 times in 2012. It’s a place I love to play, where I put my bands. One of the only music-focused venues in the city.

Then I was sad for the community of musicians and listeners. Right now, the AQ is THE place for so many bands. My quintet, Atlantis Quartet, the Dave King Trucking Company, Chris Bates’ band Red 5. It’s the only place where Dave Karr leads a gig. Where you can hear Chris Lomheim, Dave Graf and Brad Bellows’ Valves Meet Slide band, Eric Gravatt.

It’s the only place I know there will be listeners in the audience as well as musicians, and I’ll have a communal hang with people I don’t get to see all the time. That’s irreplaceable – the fact that this is the place for us all to be a community. I can go on a Tuesday night, hear musicians, and see musicians. People know me and I know them.

There’s no other place in town where you have a community space specifically for jazz. It took 30 years to build that. It’s possible that parts of it can move to another manifestation, but all 100 percent of it won’t go. So I’m feeling sadness for all of these things, all of these losses. Plus there’s the evolution of this music over time that has happened there. That’s another loss.

What do you wish would happen, or hope will happen?

I would love to see someone open a jazz club, or jazz/creative music club – however it’s defined – possibly in a different location. Whether or not they choose the AQ name. In a way, I would almost prefer a different name. Let that place’s history be that place’s history. I would love to see a new place for jazz and creative music that has a stage, a piano, and a focus on music. And a sense of music-centered community.

What do you see as the options for jazz in the Twin Cities when the AQ closes?

Icehouse and Zeitgeist’s Studio Z. Those are the only other options for interesting, music-focused jazz. Icehouse will book a few more jazz things. They’re looking at this as a chance to expand their jazz offerings.

Another reason for special sadness about the AQ is it’s one of the only places with a piano. Icehouse doesn’t have a piano; Studio Z does. So when the AQ closes, it breaks down to one place that has the musical instrument I play. The options are super-limited. I hope someone sees that as an opportunity.


All photos (except the setlist) (C) 2013 John Whiting

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