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Carole Nelson: Zen And The Art Of Music Making

Carole Nelson: Zen And The Art Of Music Making

Courtesy Carole Nelson

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I want to travel the distances between the dark places and the joy of all beings, the joy of being alive—that’s the sort of spectrum I’m on.
—Carole Nelson
To what extent music is a product of nature versus nurture is impossible to qualify, but it is reasonable to assume that a musician's immediate environment plays into the music somehow. Difficult, certainly, to imagine bebop birthing anywhere other than in the hurly burly of 1940s New York, for example. For London-born, Ireland-based pianist Carole Nelson, the Carlow countryside and its varied landscape has exerted a profound effect on her music making.

Since 2001 Nelson has lived in the shadow of the Blackstairs Mountains that hug the border between County Carlow and County Wexford. The landscape is at once dramatic and serene, qualities that have filtered into Night Vision (Blackstairs Records, 2022), Nelson's third album with her trio of bassist Cormac O'Brien and drummer Dominic Mullan.

The Carlow landscape directly inspired Nelson's trio's debut, One Day in Winter (Black Stairs Records, 2017)—an impressionistic, contemplative work that also featured Nelson's spoken-word poetry and occasional soprano saxophone.

Arboreal (Black Stairs Records, 2020), taking the threat to the environment as its driving force, was more of a purely piano trio outing, though still defined by an economy of notes uncommon to most contemporary piano trios.

It's little wonder that the environment plays into Nelson's music, for she immerses herself in it.

A typical day sees Nelson greet the rising sun with tai chi. There is a swim in the nearby river later in the day. Meditation in life, meditation in music? Nelson's is music that breathes and that embraces space. Melodies are caressed and carried tenderly. Rhythms are sure and beguiling, like the flow of a river, the passing of clouds or the agile, graceful and sometimes thrilling patterns of birds in flight.

For Nelson, the link between her physical, early-morning mediation and her musical expression is something she feels ever more keenly.

"The meditation practice might seem like it's something on a separate track but of course I've been doing it for a long time, so it permeates everything. It's a little hard to articulate because a bit like breathing you sort of forget you're doing it."

It is a description that captures the chemistry between Nelson and her trio partners, O'Brien and Mullan. "I know I've got a reputation for all the space, but I just love that listening-in-between stuff. That became a meditative process itself," Nelson explains.

"Also, I think to deal with any performance anxiety or that kind of thing it's really important to try and step out of my own head. So, if I remember to do it, I try and say something to myself 'May this performance be for the benefit of everybody'—that kind of give-it-out feeling, rather than [Nelson mimics the jitters] hearing one's own neurosis."

Nelson's less-is-more approach to the piano, was the product, to a large degree, of chance. Some years ago, an injury to both her arms left her unable to play. "It was really very distressing. But I used to sit at the piano and cry," she laughs. "Then I would just raise up the hands and drop them, see where they landed and listen. That then became a large part of how and why I create music."

The trio coming together was another stroke of fate. In 2015, Nelson got an email out of the blue from Allan Smith, the legendary Dublin promoter, co-founder of the Improvised Music Company and the man who was responsible for bringing the likes of Elvin Jones, Jan Garbarek and Wayne Shorter to the Irish capital.

Smith was putting together a three-night festival dedicated to trios, titled, aptly enough, Trio Trio Trio and clearly felt that Nelson had something to offer, even if she did not quite share his certitude.

"I hadn't even conceived of doing anything like that," concedes Nelson, "but I agreed. I really felt it was being put to me now to show up as well as I could in that context, because I was very aware of my technical limitations in some ways because I couldn't play as fast and as furiously as some and it was important not to feel overburdened by that and to allow whatever it is I have got to have some space."

So it was that Nelson, O'Brien and Mullan's first trio performance took place. Nelson didn't write any new music for the 45-minute gig, instead reworking material from Zrazy, her celebrated duo project with Maria Walsh that began life in 1992. Nelson felt the musical chemistry at play from the very start.

"I loved it so much that I started thinking about doing an album and then wrote completely new music for that—self-financed," explains Nelson.

The positive reception for One Day In Winter persuaded the Arts Council to support Nelson, providing the impetus for the trio's second album, Arboreal.

"I was really clear that I wanted to work with Cormac and Dominic and that we would develop musically together" says Nelson. "It wouldn't just be Carole with her side-people."

The confidence within the trio has grown from album to album, with Nelson's faith in O'Brien and Mullan as equal playing partners engendering a sense of true identity. "I think Night Vision has really found that now," affirms Nelson.

"I wanted us all to feel that we were making spaces where we could be fully ourselves and not be boxed into anything. I think there's a lot of pressure on bassists and drummers to hold the groove. I really wanted them to know right from the beginning that the groove is implicit from all of us, and you can do whatever you feel... open it up all the time. I'm really, really glad that we're doing it this way."

Although there are stylistic and conceptual threads running through all the trio's albums, Night Vision is a different beast.

"I didn't start off with a concept. I didn't start off with a story or a plan at all. So, it's something that has grown into itself more organically, whereas with One Day In Winter and Arboreal I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to do as an album. People would ask me 'what's this one about?' and I really wasn't able to say. And I didn't want to have to say either."

The album was made possible by a grant from First Music Contact. FMC is an Arts Council-funded organisation that recognizes the societal value of popular music and provides all manner of support to musicians in Ireland, from resources to training and skills development.

"That was just great, all those grants that were available at the beginning of the pandemic," acknowledges Nelson gratefully. "And there's nothing like actually getting a grant to make you do something," she laughs, "you know?"

The creative seed for Night Passage was planted during an artistic residency in County Mayo. Nelson was there as a member of the women's artistic collective Na Cailleacha. Of the eight participants, Nelson was the only one under the age of seventy and the only musician among visual artists.

Nelson wrote a lot of music, finding her muse in the landscape—the ancient rocks, peat bogs and the storm-lashed sea. She began meditating on the idea of "deeper still," unsure of its real meaning but guided by the notion, nevertheless. It provided the title one of the tracks on Night Vision. In the end, the album would become something else altogether once Nelson returned home.

The residency was, however, an edifying experience for Nelson on other levels. The eight artists would eat together every day and partake in curated conversations about environmentalism, feminism, creativity, vulnerability and age—with the odd glass of wine to help oil the wheels.

"I think it was a lot of windows opening onto fresh views," she says. "It opened up possibilities of working in film and video and collaborating. And I am now a visual artist," she says, laughing. Nelson's self-deprecation is because she sees herself as a novice among "serious artists." But the proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding and Nelson has since collaborated with her fellow artists on a number of projects.

Her focus, though, remained very much with her trio. COVID then brought about a period of lockdown, which made it extremely difficult to rehearse the new music.

"I came back with all these different materials but in the end I think I was just too much on my own. I think we had two rehearsals with all this new material and about four of the pieces didn't make it onto the album. I realized I wanted to simplify the structures more and more just to allow for greater freedoms within."

Nelson felt that something was incomplete in her mediation on rock, water, peat and time. "I was missing the life," she relates.

She didn't have to travel far. "I started observing insects and it was like a revelation. These tiny things are the most alien things in my immediate world."

The track "Mayfly" is a about the seemingly fleeting nature of an insect's life. "I started to think of the relativity of time in terms of different lifespans. A tree of maybe 300 years would see us passing by and think 'they think they've done well if they get to 90,' and we look at a lifeform that has a one-day existence and tend to think 'oh, what a shame!' —instead of seeing the richness of whatever that now experience is for them. We have no concept of it."

With greater focus, the trio entered Dublin's Hellfire studio, but there were still invisible hurdles to overcome. Not all the music was gelling. Enter recording engineer Ivan Jackman. Nelson relates how Jackman suggested the trio simply improvise for a while to break the impasse—a simple enough idea that was to have profound results.

The trio recorded for about an hour. "I think it felt to all of us at the time that that could be the whole album," says Nelson. "In the end it wasn't. It became edited and selected from that. Half of Night Vision is collective improvisation and that's just a completely different universe."

For Nelson, it was a very different approach to the trio's first two albums, which bar one song, were almost entirely through-composed. This new-found freedom has had a liberating knock-on effect on the trio's live performances.

"We had a gig with a first set, second set... so we had time to relax into it," Nelson relates. "We've always done little noodly intros and outros, but we haven't just really let it fly. I think the fact that we did that on the album and in the studio gave us confidence that we could take a left or right swerve at any point and let it go wherever it would, and that happened and made the whole gig very exciting. It wasn't just this number then that number... you know?"

Creating an album out of composed and entirely improvised material provided another challenge—the sequencing of tracks on the album. Nelson laughs. "It's very hard not to think 'how will this be heard? How will this be received? Do I want to make it appealing? What is it I want to make?

"I think the first two albums were very accessible and this one wasn't aiming for that. Of course, in the end I wanted to go with what I found the most exciting as the opening piece."

Night Vision opens with "Chrysalis," a brooding and somewhat abstract piece where O'Brien's eerie arco articulations, Nelson's minor key minimalism and Mullan's quasi-subliminal percussive accents combine to unsettling affect. "One reviewer said it was disturbing," laughs Nelson, "and I think it is slightly. There's a kind of other—worldly weirdness about it. "

On an album of contrasts, where quiet impressionism rubs shoulders with expansive, groove-based flow, Nelson's spare melodicism is the guiding light. Unhurried, lyrical and measured, her every note carries weight. "I think I took a lot of inspiration when starting out with the trio from the players who use space, because it reassured me."

During a June gig at the Sofa Sessions, the long-running weekly series of gigs at Billy Byrne's, Kilkenny, Nelson had the equivalent of a musical epiphany. "It occurred to me that I'm leaving all this space because I really want to hear what the others are doing. And that was a revelation to me. It's not an aesthetic choice, I actually want to hear everything. I just like to hear the whole trio all the time."

Nelson cites the spare piano playing style of Tord Gustavsen and Marcin Wasilewski among her influences, but it is not uniquely pianists that Nelson is drawn to. Almost any musicians who prize space and beauty in their music appeal to Nelson's musical sensibility.

She points to Quercus, the one-of-a-kind trio of June Tabor, Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy.

"Quercus was very inspirational to me for One Day In Winter. I was listening to the spareness of Huw's [Warren] playing in that context. It wasn't like, 'I'm a jazz musician, look at what I can do.' It was supporting beautiful, beautiful music. So, I thought, 'Well, I'm going to be unashamed about beauty whatever anybody else might say about it.

"It goes in and out of fashion or starts to mean different things, but whatever it means to me I certainly want to find those moments where you go 'oooooh, '" she says, clutching her palms to her chest. "They are rare enough."

Another guardian of beauty, the late Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, is another touchstone for Nelson. "I loved his band. I heard him play up in Vicar Street. In fact, I was crying because I found it so beautiful and I didn't know how to get from where I was to anywhere near what I was listening to, but I did know that I wanted to bridge that gap somehow. It was a such a longing."

Nelson turns to the soprano saxophone on "Enter Your Life," with just more than a hint of Wayne Shorter in her sound. It is a comparison that resonates with her. In fact, when Nelson moved from London to Dublin in 1986 the saxophone was her main instrument and for a period she taught saxophone at Newpark Academy of Music.

Nelson didn't think of herself as a jazz pianist until the early days of Zrazy, her duo with Maria Walshe, where she mostly played saxophone. The transition was born of necessity. "We were short of a pianist, so I took on playing piano."

In her own eyes, however, Nelson was not a particularly good pianist. "Every Sunday we had a gig in Dublin, and I recorded it, and I would come home and force myself to listen to how bad I was, but it was a really fast learning track, firstly with timing and getting to grips with being in when I needed to be in. And then I just sort of self—educated. I just listened and studied and used books and got myself to wherever I'm at now."

In the twenty or so years since Nelson turned to the piano, her approach to the instrument has changed little. "I sit at the piano and noodle away until something holds me. That's all it is. 'I like it, I'm staying here.' Is it something I can develop? Is it something I want to come back to? That's when I'm by myself. When I'm with Cormac and Dominic...

Nelson's thoughts on music always seem to circle around to her trio with O'Brien and Mullan.

"I just love them. We just kind of fall into this central space when we're on stage where you're looking into each other's faces, and you just see this openness and connection and going into the group mind."

Group meditation? Listening to Night Vision and it would seem that the three are perfectly attuned to each other's wavelengths. For Nelson, the emotive ley lines that draw her trio so closely and intuitively together are bound up with everyone and everything.

She riffs on the joy exuded by the chickens she keeps, when served their favorite food of cooked potato or strawberries. She marvels at the brief existence of the mayfly and the timelessness of nature. And yet for all the positivity, sensitivity and humor that Nelson radiates, she fears for the future of our planet.

The huge reduction in the number of insects, widely attributed to loss of habitat, climate change and the increase of chemicals in modern agriculture, is most noticeable to those, like Nelson, who live in the countryside.

"It's something people comment on all the time, driving around country lanes at night," says Nelson referring to the clean windscreens that once upon a time used to be insect-splattered. "It's actually very terrifying to think about too much, isn't it? We just have to recognize our interdependence; our food is under threat as it is, let alone if pollination can't take place."

Nelson channels all these thoughts and emotions into her music, speaking truth to love and beauty as well as to fear and alarm.

"I want to travel the distances between the dark places and the joy of all beings, the joy of being alive—that's the sort of spectrum I'm on. I wonder how I reach out with my fingertips and bring all that into something that is of value. In want whatever I do to be of value beyond me."

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