Mike Nock: Making Music Flow from the River Within
It almost seems as if there's no other place on earth like it. New Zealand is truly breathtaking, with its diverse geography of mountains, beaches, green plains and forests forming a complex triptych where different strains of nature melt into a sublime scenario. And then there there's the water, the ever-flowing source of life, finding its way through the landscape, reaching the shore and resting in lakes among the rocks.
This is the place where pianist Mike Nock spent his childhood and the landscape that would be a significant part of not only his DNA, but also the body of his music which, with its ebb and flow, and sense of movement and space, seems to sing the wordless songs of his home country.
Nock, who was born in Christchurch on September 27, 1940, had an insatiable appetite for music early in his life, and fortunately he had the guiding lights to help him. At the tender of age of 11, he was already knee-deep into music. His father helped him to practice the piano. and an anecdote told by Nock speaks of how he would skip the pages of the piano books to constantly be ahead, and yet his father emphasized the importance of learning each page thoroughly.
The combination of restless curiosity and aesthetic perfectionism would be something that would continue to follow Nock the rest of his musical career and be a hallmark of his approach to playing, teaching and composing. Besides his father, another early influence was the local pharmacist, Bert McNamara, who was also a keen pianist and had a sizeable record collection. McNamara became Nock's entry into jazz tradition and throughout the years, he continued to take in influences as diverse as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor.
In 1952, Nock's father died and this tragic event became a turning point in his life. As Nock reveals to his biographer Norman Meehan in the book Serious Fun. The Life and Music of Mike Nock (Victoria University Press, 2011): "I was a staunch Catholic, but when my father died I felt that God had betrayed me by taking my father away from me. So I kind of rejected religion and music became my religion. That's why music is so powerful to me. The faith I had put into God was put into music."
Quite early in his life, music became a call and a way of living and not only something that was done in the spare time. It is significant that some of the major changes in Nock's life have been determined by music. Thus, Nock's move from Christchurch to New Zealand's capital city, Wellington, and, later, his journey to Australia and America were all a result of his desire to expand the possibilities of playing music and grow artistically.
Nock's nature of exploration is also recognized by musicologist Wade Gregory who, in his thesis on Nock's contribution to Australian jazz, calls him: "A Global Villager, a roaming citizen of the jazz world and one of its most passionate ambassadors."
Throughout the earliest phase of his career, Nock played in different constellations, one of them being the funnily titled The Fabulous Flamingos. However, the first constellation that had an air of international potential about it was The 3-Out Trio, with bassist Freddy Logan and drummer Chris Karan. Its infectious swing became something of a hit in Australia, but the trio never got an international breakthrough. Instead, Nock moved to America where he became a member of the jazz scene in New York and played with saxophonists Yusef Lateef and John Handy.
While playing with John Handy, Nock met violinist Michael White and, with bassist Ron McClure and drummer Eddie Marshall, they formed The Fourth Way, whose groundbreaking electrified jazz became a blueprint for what was later known as fusion. Of the three albums the group released, The Sun and Moon Have Come Together is often highlighted as its best.
Recorded live at The New Orleans House (as is the rest of the album), the title track is an epic excursion into sound, with Nock exploring every nuance of the Fender Rhodes, changing between highly ornamented runs on the keys and spacious fills while McClure takes care of a deep, hypnotic groove and White's soaring violin plays a lovely theme and acts counterpoint to Nock's ideas. Without any cheap effects, the group easily conjures a musical momentum as Nock delivers a stellar solo halfway through the eight-minute track and later it all ends with Marshall banging away on the drums.
The Fourth Way had the potential to become a group as widely established as Weather Report and, while it certainly created a buzz and attracted a dedicated fan base, the time with the group remains a short, but significant phase of Nock's career. It was a period that underlined his ability to step in and out of different musical contexts, changing easily between the vocabularies of pop, rock, jazz and classical. It is a testament to the eclectic nature of Nock's approach to music that he has both played with jazz greats, composed new classical music, accompanied a pop singer like Dionne Warwick and made music for films.
Nock's many musical influences are gathered most profoundly in the works in his own name. Whether working with a large ensemble, in a duo, trio, quartet or solo, he always takes a fresh approach to his material, constantly reinventing himself.
An acknowledged classic of the 1980s is Ondas, the recording Nock made with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jon Christensen in 1981. Released on Manfred Eicher's ECM label, the album is the perfect marriage between that label's open, spacious aesthetic and Nock's warm, melodic approach, where the sublime landscapes of sound never lose the touch with humanity, thanks to the pianist's deeply emotional playing. Speaking of the record and his collaboration with Eicher, Nock says: "I enjoyed doing it immensely. That record was a combination of me and Manfred Eicher (the producer and ECM guru). It was what he wanted. It was what I wanted also. He liked the rather somber mood...I would never have the nerve to put such an unrelieved somberness on record."