Even before she was out of her teens, while a freshman at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, saxophonist Hailey Niswanger (pronounced “NICE-wonger”) was turning heads with her stunning command of straight-ahead jazz traditions. One of those whose ears she caught with her 2009 debut recording, Confeddie, was the venerable jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who opined in the Wall Street Journal, “She plays with remarkable authority and drive considering her relative youth, and with the elan and dynamics of an unmistakable pro.”
Now 22 and living in Brooklyn, having graduated from Berklee in December 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance, Niswanger demonstrates even greater virtuosity on her horns—alto and soprano saxophones—and deeper grounding in tradition with her second release, The Keeper, a set of eight of her own compositions, along with one apiece from the pens of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Cole Porter. She is joined by three masterly former Berklee associates—pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi, bassist Max Moran, and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr.—and, on three selections, trumpeter Darren Barrett, a Berklee alumnus who now teaches at the prestigious institution.
Niswanger’s eight originals reflect her abiding affinity for the bop and post-bop genres of jazz and profound respect for her mentors. The joyous, time-signature-shifting title song, as well as the entire CD, is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Cumpston. He was the director of both the jazz band and symphonic band during her four years at West Linn High School near Portland. He also played drums in her band. In 2008, soon after she graduated, he moved with his family to Zimbabwe to teach elementary school. He died there the following year in a traffic accident.
The swinging “Straight Up” honors onetime Eddie Harris trumpeter Thara Memory, Niswanger’s instructor at an afterschool arts program during her high school days. “He really changed my life and made me fall in love with jazz,” she says now. “He was the first teacher that really started telling me the truth straight up, speaking exactly what he felt about my playing, my behavior, everything. I feel that I’ve taken on that trait, too, in a way that I’m not afraid to hold back about what I really feel.”
Niswanger composed the gently swinging “Norman” for her 94-year-old Portland friend Norman Leyden, whose extensive credits include writing arrangements for Glenn Miller’s Air Force band and for such singers as Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. She has known him since she was 10, when he helped her with a fourth-grade report on George Gershwin. They played “Rhapsody in Blue” together on clarinets during their first meeting. “Every time I’m home, we get together for tea and lunch,” she says. “We talk about music, listen to old records, and look at old scores.”
“Tale of Dale,” with its boisterous beginning and changes of tempo, was inspired by several of her family members who share that name, especially her older sister and best friend Kaitlin Dale, who also took the photographs for The Keeper. “The thing with these people is they’re outgoing, crazy, wild people that are constantly changing their minds about things,” the saxophonist explains. “They’ve very passionate people, too.”
The playful, Monkish “‘B’ Happy” was written for two of Niswanger’s lifelong “companions,” the remnants of two cherished toys “that keep me connected to my childhood.”
“Scraps,” the CD’s Coltrane-esque opening track, was created from bits and pieces of melodies she had either sung or played and recorded on her telephone. The lovely waltz “Balance” was composed for her drummer and close friend, Mark Whitfield Jr. The pensive “Ravine” featuring Niswanger’s alto and Barrett’s trumpet was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of the same name. She fell in love with it upon viewing it at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, located less than a mile from Berklee. Van Gogh’s image of water rushing though a ravine reminded her of her lifelong passion for white-water rafting.
“Hidden within the painting are two travelers walking down a path,” she adds. “You can’t really see them unless you look hard. That was the idea for the trumpet and the saxophone. One line carries and the other one carries it further, and they’re interacting throughout the whole piece.”
The quintet makes imaginative use of stop time in Niswanger’s arrangement of “Milestones,” the 1947 Miles Davis tune, not the same-titled one from 11 years later. “Played Twice” reflects her ongoing fondness for the music of Thelonious Monk. And to give additional variety to the program of songs, Cole Porter’s classic “Night and Day” is performed by just Niswanger and Ohbayashi.
“No matter what direction I decide to go in, I know he’s going to pull through brilliantly,” Niswanger says of the pianist, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan, and presently lives in Harlem.
Bassist Moran, currently a member of saxophonist Donald Harrison’s group, flew to Boston from New Orleans just to record The Keeper. “The way he plays the bass just feels so comfortable,” Niswanger says.
Of the drummer, son of renowned guitarist Mark Whitfield, she says, “I’ve never heard anyone play drums like Mark—the dedication and history that he plays with.”
The saxophonist had played in trumpeter Barrett’s ensemble class at Berklee. “He really showed me what it was like to be a bandleader,” she states.
Hailey Niswanger was born in Houston, Texas, on February 12, 1990, and moved to Portland, Oregon, with her family when she was 2. She began studying classical piano at 5 and still plays the instrument, not in public, but for composing and “learning more about chords.” She took up clarinet at age 8 at Willowbrook Arts Camp outside Portland and years later, during summer breaks from Berklee, returned there to teach piano and woodwinds to children. Her clarinet teacher introduced her to saxophone when she was 10. She also played accordion for several years. By the time she was 16, she was taking private lessons on all four instruments and playing in at least nine different bands.
“I was playing all the time and didn’t really have a life,” she now admits. A bout with tendinitis forced her to slow down, and she dropped piano and accordion and stopped taking clarinet lessons. She wore braces for a period, but acupuncture eventually helped relieve the pain.
In September 2009, while still taking a full load of classes at Berklee, Niswanger became the alto saxophonist in Boston’s eclectic Either/Orchestra, a role previously held by Miguel Zenon, Jaleel Shaw, and others. She performed with the orchestra through February 2012, appearing at the Chicago Jazz Festival and at Teatro Manzoni in Milan, Italy, where the band collaborated with internationally renowned Ethiopian artists Mahmoud Ahmed and Mulatu Astatke. And in May 2011, she spent a week playing the music of the late composer-arranger Nerses Nalbandian with Either/Orchestra throughout Ethiopia.
“It completely changed my life,” she says of the tour. “I’ve always been fascinated with Africa and wanted to go there and hear the roots of all this music I love. It’s the motherland, and you smell it in the air as soon as you get off the plane.”
Niswanger’s saxophone influences include John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, and Eddie Harris. She named her previous CD, Confeddie, after Harris, who was famous for getting an alto-like sound out of his tenor.
“Most of my influences have been tenor players,” she says. “I actually try to make my alto sound like a tenor.”
Unlike many jazz musicians of her generation who incorporate electronics and funk and rock influences into their music, Niswanger has remained true to straight-ahead traditions with their swing-derived rhythms.
“I listen to all kinds of music: classical, jazz, R&B, hip-hop,” she says. “Today you see a lot of artists mixing and mashing genres, but I want to stay true to jazz. I want to honor it. I want to be known primarily as a jazz artist.”
While attending Berklee, most of her engagements were arranged by the college. Since graduating, however, she’s been on her own.
“I was in school, so I didn’t go out looking for gigs,” she explains. “I’m very happy to have gotten the amount of playing experience that I did while being in school and being an excellent student. Now that I’m out of school, I’m putting all my energy into this CD. As soon as it gets rolling, then I’ll be able to put a lot of time into doing gigs.”
With a CD as brilliant as The Keeper, Niswanger should have little trouble landing plenty of work.