In a decade or so, pianist Bryan Nichols made the leap from promising student of jazz to one of the Twin Cities’ rising stars. Whether he’s sitting in with other performers or leading his own quintet, Nichols has become one of the region’s most visible performers. His multilayered compositions and his playing place his group in the company of other leading ensembles, like the Atlantis Quartet.
The Bryan Nichols Quintet includes Bryan Nichols on piano, Michael Lewis and Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, James Buckley on bass, and JT Bates on drums. The musicians perform tonight and Saturday at St. Paul’s Artists Quarter, with Erik Fratzke sitting in for Buckley.
I sat down with Nichols the other day to discuss his multifaceted and collegial approach to music. Here’s our conversation.
It strikes me when I listen your music that it’s very intricate. It’s not like when I listen to Atlantis for example some of their tunes start out like bam. They just hit you with that rhythm immediately. And that’s not your style. You have these tunes that sort of gently work their way into a conversation with other performers and then in the middle of those tunes those guys take off and so do you. Tell me how you approach music as you write and perform.
I like sometimes that you can come out the gate and just really hear, this is going to be a thing, we’re going to bring this groove. But I also like the idea that we can kind of coalesce this order out of sometimes something really simple or sometimes you know kind of get to those high points in different ways.
I want to have each song and each idea to be sort of a journey. And then you know when you listen to the record or listen to the show I want each set to be a journey too. And so like, ideally you know if you’re coming out of the gate each time going pow, you, you’re going to lose some people. It’s not going to feel like, Oh, I feel like I’m being you know individually and collectively moved here. So if we can kind of just have that progression and have that progression of ideas that’s kind of where I want to be with it.
The other thing is that I like the idea that, you know, I write my music and it’s got these certain frameworks that I want to follow but then it’s got a lot of room for individual improvisers’ input. And the people that I work with are you know some of my favorite musicians in the world. And they’re people who I have been working with for most of my musical life or all most al of it in some cases and guys who I want to keep working with forever. And so I want to give them places to really shine and not feel burdened by like my compositional ideas. If they can have ideas add input that’s sort of my goal.
On you last CD, Bright Places, you were working with Michael Lewis and Brandon Wozniak on saxes, James Buckley on bass and JT Bates on drums. Is that the same group that you’re working with now, or have you added somebody?
That’s one of the groups I’m working with now. James can’t do this Artists’ Quarter weekend. And so one of my favorite musicians in the whole world, Erik Fratzke, is playing bass. Erik is just this super amazing musician who not only has this brilliant voice on guitar but has this other amazing voice on bass. So he’ll be doing all the bass stuff. He plays electric bass which, while it’s a little different cause usually James plays acoustic, I love his musicality so much and he fits in so well with the thing that it works out great. We play together in the band the Gangfont. And so it makes perfect sense to have him involved in this.
All of these guys do my large group, my nine-piece group, We Are Many, that adds four extra pieces to this thing and then. For now, especially since I got everyone involved, everyone’s back in town, for just a minute, uh, I really wanted to do some more with the quintet because we haven’t done it for eight, nine months.
Are you working on new tunes for a new recording?
I’m working on new tunes. I hesitate to say what the next recording will be. Right now I kind of have a solo recording that is mostly done that was a live concert I did about a year ago. I’m still trying to figure out how best to put that out. I’m also thinking a out a We Are Many recording as well as kind of I’ve been writing a lot of trio music lately. So I’ve been thinking about getting that out there. So I don’t want to say like here’s going to be the next recording. But yes, I’ve been working on new music.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how people compose new music in this modern age. Fifty years ago, jazz musicians all were practitioners of an art that focused on standards and occasional pieces by composers who were great musicians. But they had a common frame of reference I think. And I’m not sure that that common frame of reference exists any more. I mean, if the focus isn’t on standards how hard is it for people to learn your work?
That’s a super interesting question. Personally I have frames of reference that I think my music exists in that I know the musicians I play with they have some of those references as well. But the availability and the just the number of references you could have are so much broader now. You know you could be influenced by Sonny Clark and Thelonious Monk and Henry Threadgill and all these different people.
I think the cool thing about our music is I can bring a collection of influences and ideas and then when I get together with someone else, they’re going to bring a different set, and maybe we overlap in these certain places. And that can be really interesting too because we can kind of explore here’s where we overlap, here’s where we have different ideas. How can we kind of find this common language? And then certainly you know as a bandleader when thinking I’m putting sets together one of the things I almost always do is I include some sort of not necessarily standards but some sort of common language things if nothing else [to] give people a reference point.
Like we’ve done some Thelonious Monk tunes with this band, we’ve done some Paul Motian tunes with this band. I think this weekend we’re going to do at least one if not two Andrew Hill songs. You know, we’re not playing My Funny Valentine, but on the other hand, we’re giving people. OK, cool, here’s a reference point, here’s something that we’re into and it will hopefully frame this music.
I wanted to ask you about the different sides of your personality. I heard you play in the interludes between author Junot Diaz during his talk the other day at the Fitz. Part of you was sort of like this airy, light, playing and the other part was more rhythmic, a little more funky. I’m wondering which part you gravitate to more.
I’d like to think that they’re both in there, you know. I like the idea that I can have both this kind of you know, the rhythmic propulsive side. I like the idea that I can have this kind of ethereal, atmospheric side. And that I can kind of combine those in interesting ways that, hopefully make sense as sort of a complete personality.
Even my own music, I’m always thinking about those. Here’s the piano as a stringed instrument, here’s the piano as harmony. But then here’s the piano as like a big piece of wood and metal.
What are you going to do this weekend? What can people expect to hear?
People can expect to hear some of the tunes on Bright Places, they can expect to hear a couple of new tunes, they can expect to hear hopefully a couple of surprising things. I think we’re going to pull out at least one Andrew Hill tune that we have never done before and maybe something else.
But yeah, you can expect to hear this group, which you know we haven’t done since we did really the Twin Cities Jazz Society program in January where we did the music of the Keith Jarrett American Quartet. So maybe we’ll pull out some of that music as well. I think there’s a lot of stuff that’s fair game. I’m just excited to be kind of back in it with this group again. It’s been too long.