Artists have different kinds of drawing boards. A writer can sketch out a story during his or her morning run. A playwright can figure out how to stage a scene while cooking or gardening. For tenor saxophonist Russ Nolan, he of the “intriguing musical mind” (All About Jazz), the dance floor has become a productive creative ground.
When he started taking salsa lessons five years ago, he admits, it was partly as a way to meet women following a breakup. Having hung up his martial arts robe after 15 years, he also needed a hobby—something the sage saxophonist George Garzone once suggested is essential for any jazz musician who wanted to maintain his sanity. But the better Nolan got at dancing—he now holds his own with seasoned break-steppers, no mean feat for a guy with his six-four frame—the better his writing and arranging became.
“On the dance floor, you key off of a rhythm,” he says. “Getting it into my body helped my sense of time. I became a lot freer with rhythm.”
That freedom is in ample evidence on Tell Me, the Queens-based Nolan’s eagerly awaited follow-up to With You in Mind, the 2008 gem he recorded with the Kenny Werner Trio. Latin rhythms assert themselves in unexpected places and in unexpected ways on the new album, produced by and featuring violin sensation Zach Brock. “I was never attracted to just playing standards with a Latin beat,” says Nolan. “I was a lot more drawn to the deeper Afro-Cuban sounds of Miguel Zenón and David Sanchez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.”
Even those celebrated players might have their sensibilities spun by Nolan’s treatment of themes by the late Jaco Pastorius, whose ballad “Three Views to a Secret” (from Weather Report’s Night Passage) inspired two of the songs on Tell Me. Nolan transformed its A section into an up-tempo Brazilian baião, “No Secrets,” changing the meter from 3/4 to 2/4. He also used Pastorius’s bridge as the basis for “View from a Bridge,” a bolero in 10/8 that incorporates in the solo sections the changes of a tune Nolan had written before moving to New York from Chicago.
If he didn’t attain sufficient ‘Jacosity’ with those tunes, his title cut, “Tell Me,” draws from Pastorius’s “Havona” (featured on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather) and Herbie Hancock’s “Tell Me a Bedtime Story” (from 1969’s Fat Albert Rotunda). And his offbeat arrangement of John Lennon’s “Nowhere Man,” rendered in the unusual key of D-flat, was inspired by Bob Mintzer’s opening vamp on “The Visionary,” a song on that saxophonist’s tribute album, I Remember Jaco.
Two other pop classics, Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” and the Michael Jackson hit, “Man in the Mirror,” get Nolan-ized, as does, most strikingly, Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” With its 6/8 feel, altered melody and chords, biting bridge section, and fierce solos by Nolan and Brock, it’s the most dynamic version of the classic in years. “The singer I wrote it for didn’t like 6/8, so I kept it for myself,” Nolan says.
“My basic approach is to take from the best and make it my own,” he says. “If the melody is set, I change the meter or harmonic features. If you can’t mess with the rhythm, I write a new melody. If it’s a ballad, I make it uptempo, and if it’s uptempo, I slow it down. I morph the elements so they become my own. It’s all about avoiding predictability, avoiding triteness.”
Nolan’s arrangements are sometimes so captivating, they can overshadow his playing. He’s a powerful tenor player who strikes a soulful balance between a classic, hard-edged sound and the airier tones and textures popularized by Michael Brecker. Leading a fine quartet including pianist Art Hirahara, a San Francisco native, he is equally comfortable digging into an acoustic setting and gliding over plugged-in accompaniment.
His interest in Pastorius, Brecker, electric Herbie, and all manner of jazz-rock fusion goes back to the hours he spent as a teen in the Waukegan Public Library spinning such albums as Heavy Weather and Steps Ahead. A 44-year-old native of Gurnee, Illinois (halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, the town is best known for Six Flags Great America), Nolan has a very different background than other notable mainstream Chicago-area players of his generation, including Brad Goode, Jim Gailloreto, Ryan Cohan, and Geof Bradfield. During high school, he didn’t take private music lessons. Sports were his thing: He was a star basketball and baseball player who entertained hopes of becoming a pro until that didn’t pan out.
He did play in the school marching and jazz bands, though, and then attended a jazz summer camp, his interest in jazz deepened by West Coast saxophonist Gary Foster’s moving rendition of “Summer of ’42” at a community college concert. At Northern Illinois University he failed to make it into any of the school’s jazz ensembles during his first year. But he worked his way into the second-tier band and was good enough to get into the vaunted jazz program at North Texas State (now known as the University of North Texas). He became friends there with fellow saxophonist Jeff Coffin (now a stalwart in Dave Matthews Band and leader of the Mu’tet), with whom he played in a three-tenor band with his former NIU saxophone professor Larry Panella (currently University of Southern Mississippi Jazz Studies Director).
Strapped for money back in Chicago, where he played in wedding bands, he sold insurance and natural gas and worked for a collection agency. From 1994 until the end of the decade, he played very little music. Then he was contracted to play in the orchestra that backed singer Kurt Elling at Mayor Richard M. Daley’s big millennium bash in McCormick Place. That was where he first met Brock, with whom he subsequently played in a quintet of musicians associated with the Bloom School of Jazz.
Rewarding musical experiences notwithstanding, the Windy City was never the right fit for Nolan. The more he studied and played with visiting New Yorkers including Chris Potter, Kenny Werner, and Dave Liebman—and the more they encouraged him to move to the Big Apple—the more he knew he had to go East if he was going to make anything of his career.
He knew things would be even more challenging there. “Liebman told me, ‘You better not want to do anything else with your life if you go to New York,’” he says. Nolan made the move six months after 9/11, settling not in Brooklyn, where many working jazz musicians live, but Sunnyside, Queens. It wasn’t easy getting gigs, but being in the jazz capital of the world—even, or especially, during those dark days—rejuvenated him.
“Playing here is everything I could have hoped for,” he says. “The great thing about New York is collaborating and playing sessions with all of these world-class players. Everyone brings original tunes to be critiqued and refined by the other musicians, and the suggested revisions are many times better than the original version. There’s such a strong sense of community that phrases like ‘Hey, let’s try this’ and ‘I think this would work better here’ help create the dynamic and progressive music this city is known for.”
Nolan released his first album, Two Colors, which also features him on soprano, in 2004. Backed by pianist Sam Barsh (a young Chicago native), bassist Sean Conly, and drummer Vinnie Sperazza, he ranges boldly but effortlessly from a mashup of “Pure Imagination” (from Willy Wonka) and Miles Davis’s “It’s About That Time” (from In a Silent Way) to the gut-busting “Hai Sensei” to the darkly compelling chamber piece, “Shadow.”
Four years and a quantum leap in artistry later came With You in Mind, which drew words of high praise from top critic Francis Davis, who in his liner notes said, “Two Colors was an impressive debut; With You in Mind is a flying leap. Inasmuch as it finds the saxophonist seamlessly integrating himself into a longstanding trio, the new album reminds me of some of those classic Prestiges and Blue Notes of the 1950s and ’60s, on which freelance hornmen availed themselves of Miles Davis’s rhythm sections.”
For Tell Me, Nolan rounded up a strong group of local players including Art Hirahara, whose second album, Noble Path, was released in 2011 on Posi-Tone; bassist Michael O’Brien, who plays with Brazilian guitarist Sandro Albert; and drummer Brian Fishler. “We’re a band,” Nolan said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together. These guys may not be well known yet, but they can really play.”
With his busy schedule, Zach Brock isn’t the easiest musician to get for a session that isn’t his own. But Nolan, a self-described Type-A personality, kept after him. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” said the saxophonist. “We come from the same school of aesthetics, which puts an emphasis on high-energy modern jazz that satisfies people, as both Kenny Werner and David Bloom teach, in an intellectual way but also reaches them on a soulful level. I was hoping to involve Zach from the start and couldn’t be happier that it worked out.” •
Russ Nolan: Tell Me
Street Date: September 25, 2012
Web Site: www.russnolan.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/russnolansax or @russnolansax