Ted Nash: The Goal Is Creativity
“ I have reached a place where I realize the most important thing for me to do is just create Ted Nash ”
Ted Nash is in demand.
On the heels of his striking, and Grammy nominated, work for the renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Portrait in Seven Shades (The Orchard, 2010)the orchestra's first recording of original music by a member other than Wynton Marsalishe wrote and produced another long-form series of movements devoted to a central theme. Chakra (Plastic Sax Records) was released in September and is sure to draw acclaim similar to his work for JLCO.
He's already working on yet another commission for a large ensemble that will draw its inspirations from important speeches in history that were dedicated to peoples of the world gaining or maintaining freedom. When he's not calling on his writing muse, or flexing his distinguished saxophone chops on a gig, he is working on writing a screenplay. This is all part of the life of an artist who is flourishing. More and more people are taking notice.
Nash never went to college. He played with Lionel Hampton while in high school, toured Europe with Don Ellis as a teenager, moved to the Big Apple at 18 to find himself in the big bands of Gerry Mulligan, Chuck Israels Toshiko Akiyoshi and Mel Lewis. There were times of uncertainty, but as Nash, now 52, emerges as one of the remarkable and identifiable voices in jazz, his focus is singular.
"I have reached a place where I realize the most important thing for me to do is just create," says Nash. "It's not about making money. It's not about being famous. It's not about any of that. It's about: I need to create. I need to allow myself to be as creative as possible. Whether the stuff is supported and heard by people, or whether it's for me. Whatever. Embracing that creativity and allowing myself the time and energy to do that" is fundamental.
Nash, a fiend on sax, has been writing for large ensembles for many years and lately finds his pen quite active the JLCO, which has has been a member of for 15 years. His latest burst isn't related, however. It's a work based on the belief in chakra healing, and the seven movements are related to the seven chakras believed to control and direct a person's energy, guiding themand sometimes blocking theminternally and externally.
"I'm very excited about it. It's one of my strongest creative efforts to date," he says. He had specific musicians in mind that he felt would bring it to life.
"There are some young musicians I wanted to feature, in particular Alphonso Horne [trumpet]. Christopher Ziemba, the young pianist at Julliard and a student of [pianist] Frank Kimbrough, whom I've worked with for years. Frank highly recommended him. Ulysses Owens Jr. played drums on my last record, The Creep, (Plastic Sax Records, 2012). He's really talented and very colorful," Nash says. "I had certain people in mind that I wanted to feature who were younger and up and coming, playing great. And there's some veterans I've always admired and wanted record with, like Tim Hagans. Anat Cohen I've worked with, but I wanted to invite into my own creative circle. And a bunch of great musicians who crossed over into the studio work and commercial work. They have this ability to play, to read music very well and assimilate the music very quickly. Play all the woodwind doubles at a very high level. The meat of the band is made up of musicians like that. Very experienced. I knew I didn't have a lot of time to rehearse, so I really needed to get cats who could jump in there and understand this music quickly."
How the recording came about in the first place goes back a few years and in itself has a kind of mystic feel.
Nash was involved in a recording and encountered an assistant producer he had never met before. The man, a person of means, was effusive in his praise for Nash's body of work and approached him about writing music for a large ensemble. He was willing to put up the money. Nash went to his house and found him "in a sea of prescription bottles. He told me a story. He said, 'I was on death's door in the hospital. The doctors had pretty much given up on me.' But somebody who was working in the hospital came up to him quietly and said, 'This is against hospital regulations, but there's a healer coming from China. He's supposed to be amazing.'"
Doctors had pretty much given up on treatments and the man had few options. The meeting was arranged and, in a wheelchair, the would-be producer went to the lobby of New York City's Waldorf Astoria. "This Chinese man came down, sat with the patient and spoke to him for an hour," Nash says. "Touched him a little bit. Held his arm and did some things. At a certain point he got up to leave. The patient said 'Wait a minute. I'd love to work with you.' [The healer] said, 'We're done. We've done the work.' He left. Sure enough, this guy made a great recovery. he got his health back and his weight back. He still has some trouble, but he is still alive and it's been several years."
So the idea for the piece was to do with the chakra work. "I said fine. I didn't know much about the chakras. I studied a little bit about yoga ethics. I began at that point to research it. After I'd felt I did enough research to get a good idea of the difference between the chakras and how they are represented in many different ways, I actually met with a chakra healer and I had her do some work on me to get an idea of what that experience is like," recalls Nash. "She said, 'What do you feel you need work on?' I said communication. I was going through something ... It was a personal matter, but I couldn't communicate it. I couldn't talk about it and make clear what my intentions were; what I wanted. She said, 'Let's work on your fifth chakra, your throat chakra.' And she did. Later that day, I had this meeting and everything was very clear. I thought that was very interesting."
Nash spent a few months writing the music, but oddly lost touch with the man. For unknown reasons, he didn't participate further in the project. So Nash left it on the table for a couple years. Eventually, he returned to it, completed the work, then went about gathering a band to get the music documented. The result is the new, extraordinary album. Says the composer, "I'm happy with the band. It sounds great."
Where many large ensemble recordings storm out of the gate, the first number, "Earth (Muladhara)" is a stately ballad that has the feeling of an olden era. Nash shows great form on flute, soloing over slow, pulsing rhythms and contrapuntal horns. "Water merges into a soft jazz backdrop over which Charles Pillow blows a nice statement on alto sax, then it flows into a swinging thing that Hagans tears up on trumpet. "Fire" is an infectious riff, hard charging affair over non-standard, choppy, but right-on rhythms. Cohen's fiery clarinet stands out as it so often does. Martin Wind's bass solo is rock solid and funky. "Ether" is the most easy, flowing swing tune of the bunch. A delight. "Light" starts with Ulysses Owens brushwork on drums doing a tap dance with horns before it gets into a deep swing for Nash's solo (He only has two on the album) of the recording. "Cosmos" goes more into modern territory with changes in sonority, tempo and mood; rhythms both mainstream and modern.
It was recorded in one day, and the band was set in a standard big band formation, not with folks stuffed away in booths wearing headphones." It's the best way to do it. Everybody feels the music. You feel connected. the energy's all in the same room," the composer says. "You're talking about chakras and spiritual things. If you start putting people in different rooms, listening through headphones, the energy doesn't come through. It's a false coming together. The energy has to all vibrate within the room together to have a certain sound. You put up these mics to capture the room sound, which we used quite a bit on this. It was a good experience. To stand in front of the band rather than sit in a section, is always something I love to do."
Getting the music to fruition was special for Nash.
"It's always really exciting to get your music played by some really great musicians," he says. "I've been writing music for larger ensembles for several years. I've had some music recorded by Jazz at Lincoln Center. A long time ago with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The more you do this, the better you get at sort of being able to predict what it's going to sound like. Your ear gets trained. You understand that if you put these instruments together in this way, and in this register, you're going to get a certain sound. that helps you make decisions to arrange this music. But I'm always surprised how it sounds when I hear it the first time. The balances. Mainly, it's the warmth and the human quality that is brought to the music. Especially when you're working with computers and things and you play it back and it's these kinds of sound that never has any expression. These musicians bring breath to it. Expression. That's what's so beautiful. You feel it shaping into something."
A striking thing about the music are the rhythmsmainstream at times and quite outside what might be expected at other times. "Ulysses is very creative," notes Nash. "After he listened to this music and rehearsed it, he started coming up with his own interpretation of grooves and things. That's the kind of creativity you want and you need in a big band. especially from the drummer, who is basically the conductor of the band. He's the engine behind the band."
As for its spirituality factor, Nash said he didn't set out for the music to slam people with that kind of impact. But "it is for me, just because being creative is a spiritual experience ... When I listen to these movements in relation to the chakras, I do feel they are closely aligned with what those chakras are about."
His recent works put Nash in the mix with the other fine large ensemble composers on the scene. In addition, he's played more big band music than many of them. "When you're younger, you emulate your heroes until you start to develop your own sound, your own voice," he says of his composing style. "I do think my biggest influences were, naturally, the ones that I heard the most. Being in the Mel Lewis band for 10 years: Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Mintzer. They were probably the strongest influences on me. Of course, listening to Duke Ellington recordings. I feel now I don't necessarily sound like them, but I can still hear the influence from those great writers."
There will be a lot more from Nash for long form, large band works. "I love it. I used to be daunted by it. 'Wow. how do I deal with these instruments?' Now it's, 'Man, if I have all these instruments, I can create all these colors and textures.' You have to limit the ideas you have because it gives you such flexibility in terms of expressing your ideas. I feel like I'm just scratching the surface with the large ensemble, the big band, to express what I'm hearing."
The commission he's working on now is also with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It's set to premier in January in New York. "I think I'm calling it 'The Presidential Suite.' It's based on political speeches," he says. "Some presidents, some other politicians, some civil rights people. Prime ministers. Not necessarily United States, but presidential in the sense that these speeches are presidential. It's a general idea. Most of them are about freedom, gaining freedom or maintaining freedom."
Nash's first composition of note was at age 15 for drummer Louie Bellson. the song "Tristemente" appeared on Raincheck (Concord, 1978). It has always been music for the multi-talented Nash, not surprising, as his father, trombonist Dick Nash, and uncle, Ted Nash, who played sax, were both known jazz musicians and staples on the L.A. studio scene.
Says Nash, "I didn't go to college, but I studied privately always. I studied classical piano from the age of seven. At 12, I studied the clarinet. Then I added the saxophone and the flute after that. I even studied jazz improvisation with a teacher named Charlie Shoemake. By the time I was out of high school, I was working professionally, so I changed my mind and instead of going to college, I moved to New York and hit the streets."
"I think my father and mother and some other people thought I was making a mistake, in terms of a career. Because my dad and uncle were really busy in the studios. It was at the tail end of the [studio] heyday. The late '70s. There was still a lot going on and they thought I'd fit right into the scene and become a very busy studio musician and make a lot of money," he says. "But I knew that, vicariously, my dad enjoyed the idea of continuing what he started to do when he as young, my uncle too. Playing jazz before they settled into commercial music. I think my dad, quietly, was happy I moved to New York even though I was young. I think my mother was a little worried about me."
While still a young L.A. phenom, Nash hooked up a gig with Lionel Hampton. "I was 16. That was swinging and I thought I was in heaven. I was playing my saxophone, playing bebop solos and swinging. Doing exactly what I wanted to do. Then I started working with Bellson, which was a stronger and more clear sound. Louie had a direction that he went, which was a real hard swing. So I learned a lot about that."
Nash also landed work with Toshiko Akiyoshi's first-rate orchestra. "She was doing more colors and exotic influences. Then, there was the Don Ellis big band. This was all by the time I was 17. I did mostly big band work. I was a teenager and toured Europe for the first time with Don Ellis. That was a different set of challenges for me. The odd time signatures. The rock rhythms. He turned to me at one point, after I'd soloed, and said, 'Hey, man. Pound some dirt in there. You gotta find some dirt. He was teaching me a little bit about finding the blues, and not being so technical or theoretical. That was great. It was important to hear. A goal in all of us is to find that sense of blues in the playing."
"Then I moved to New York. I played with Gerry Mulligan's big band," he notes. "he also landed with a group called the National Jazz Ensemble, "which was Chuck Israel's group, sort of a precursor to Jazz at Lincoln Center. It was much earlier and didn't quite catch on. Big bands have been a big important part of my growing up."
While there were some struggles as a youngster in New York, things didn't go badly. He laid some groundwork before he left the west coast. He spoke to musicians he was working with about whom he might contact once he made his move. "They said, 'You gotta call so and so.' Bobby Rosengarden, Chuck Israels, Michael Brecker, people like that. I had a list of about 50 names. I got to New York and literally started calling everybody, whether they were famous or not. I said, 'Hey, I'm here. I'm the son of so and so. I've done this and that.' Some of them said, 'I don't know who you are. I've got plenty of people that I call to sub for me. Get in line.' But other people were like, 'Beautiful, man. Great to know you. What are you doing Saturday, because I have this gig and I need somebody.'"
"The reaction was so different, depending on everyone's own personal experience, maybe. Their background. How successful they were or how much they struggled to get where they are. It was a little scary at times," he says. But there were folks aware of the Nash name. "[Bandleader] Bobby Rosengarden was the drummer on "The Dick Cavett Show." He did a lot of studio work in New York. When he called me back, he said, 'Ted, I've been a big fan of yours for years. I loved your work with Les Brown and the [Henry] Mancini stuff.' I said, 'Wait, wait. Slow down. I'm his nephew.' He still called me and I ended up doing a lot of regular work with him. That wasn't name-building work. That was work that enabled me to pay my bills. Club dates. They were necessary. And they were jazz-based, so I still got to hone my jazz playing in these very specific circumstances."
The sound of Israel's band was more intense. It was a hard-core jazz group that was performing concerts. Nash was 19 and found himself in a saxophone section any band would be proud of: Gerry Niewood on lead alto, Bob Mintzer on tenor, Joe Temperley on baritone, and Sal Nistico on tenor, whom Nash calls "one of the greatest tenor players of all time."
"Tom Harrell was in the band. Jimmy Knepper. John Scofield did a lot of gigs. These are people I was meeting who were high profile. It was important to meet these people. And I was a little cocky," Nash admits which a chuckle. "I was a little sure of myself. Sometimes they would tell me, 'Hey, slow down.' I thought I knew everything, but then I realized that first year in New York that I knew very little, when it really came down to it. So I really hit the woodshed, as they say."
Bouncing from gig to gig, Nash was active, but "felt a little misdirected for a handful of years." He wasn't accomplishing as much as he thought he could, and wasn't focused on writing. He gradually put his shoulder to wheel and things began to move. One of the big things was the start of the Jazz Composers Collective, a group of young men that formed a musician-run, non-profit entity to present original works of composers who were trying to push boundaries.
"We started a concert series. We put on concerts five times a year. Five of us were in the core collective at the time, including Ben Allison, Frank Kimbrough, Ron Horton and Michael Blake. We did a concert every year where we gave ourselves the responsibility and opportunity to come up with a complete new concept for that concert. Instrumentation, the music. It was all new compositions; all about composing."
Two of the noted bands Nash led, Double Quartet and Odeon, came out of that organization. Double Quartet featured string quartet and a jazz quartet together. Odeon had the accordion and violin among the instrumentation. The group is no longer active, but last November at the Jazz Standard in New York City, it regrouped for a series of concerts making its 20th anniversary.
Jazz at Lincoln Center has been, and continues to be, one of the important projects for Nash. It's brought his playing and writing to the forefront, but he has also learned a tremendous amount. "When I joined the band 15 years ago, we really delved into Duke Ellington's music. I didn't realize how rich it was, and diverse. He really is our greatest classical composer, in a sense," says Nash."That association with Jazz at Lincoln Center has given me a lot of opportunities to contribute to the orchestra and help form its direction. I think it's been a wonderful thing. Also, we have steady enough work thatwe're not getting rich, but we can certainly pay our bills and do what we need to do. Then there are some pockets of time when I can focus on booking some other things. It's a nice situation. I don't know how long it will keep going, in terms of my involvement with it. But it's at the point right now where I really love what's going on with Jazz at Lincoln Center."
He adds, "Some people are under the impression that it's a repertory band and it's not. The majority of what we play is new music. The majority of the events we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center are educational. I think the majority of what Jazz at Lincoln Center does is educational. That's important."
He continues to do gigs with other projects and smaller bands, depending on his availability. "I love playing with other musicians and playing their music. So whenever I can do that, with people I really respect, I do that." He also recently returned from Brazil where the Orchestra Jazz Sinfonica played several pieces of his compositions orchestrated for the 80-piece group. "That's a beautiful sound too. I think I want to do more writing for orchestra."
Then there's the screenplay. Amid everything, Nash found time to take an eight-month course on screenplay writing. He had a specific project in mind.
"My mother passed a way a few years ago and she was always wanting to write a book about our experiences. When I was a child, my parents, both civil rights activists, became very close friends with a black militant leader, who was a cousin of Malcolm X, named Hakim Jamal." Jamal wrote "From the Dead Level," a memoir of his life and memories of Malcolm X. He was assassinated in 1973.
"His family and our family became great friends. We went on vacations together. It become a very unusual relationship" that ended with the assassination. "She wanted to tell the story and never did. I'm writing it as a screenplay. I have a first draft I'm rewriting now. That's something I'm really excited about. I haven't talked about it much on the outside. It's a project I'm excited about and involved in. Part of my being creative, I feel. It's part of everything that I'm doing."
But most of the creativity Nash has in abundance is directed to jazz music. He has no problem with it, and dismisses the occasional small-scale effort to downplay using that genre label.
"I don't understand what the problem is. We know what jazz is. Jazz is a very open and encompassing word for me. It means a lot of different things for me. It doesn't necessarily mean it has to go 'ching chinga-ching chinga-ching.' [Imitates a straight ahead jazz ride cymbal] And it doesn't mean it has to be a certain instrumentation or based on anything. It has blues in it and feeling. It has expression and improvisation. Those things are very important to me."
Jazz is important to him, and more and more the reverse is true.
Ted Nash Big Band, Chakra, (Plastic Sax Records, 2013)
Ted Nash, The Creep, (Plastic Sax Records, 2012)
Ted Nash, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Portrait in Seven Shades (The Orchard, 2010)
Ted Nash, The Mancini Project (Palmetto Records, 2008)
Ted Nash & Still Evolved, In the Loop (Palmetto Records, 2006)
Ted Nash & Odeon, La Espada De La Noche (Palmetto Records, 2005)
Ted Nash, Still Evolved (Palmetto Records, 2003)
Ted Nash, Sidewalk Meeting, (Arabesque, 2001)
Ted Nash, Rhyme and Reason, (Arabesque, 1999)