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Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips: Their Moment


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Every once in a while, a couple of jazz musicians who've never played with each other before find themselves together on a bandstand, and something special really clicks. They just jell musically as if they've been playing together all their lives. Pianist Cava Menzies and trumpeter Nick Phillips experienced such an encounter not long ago, when Phillips got a call to sub on a regular local gig that Menzies had in Berkley, California.

"From that gig, Nick and I totally hit it off and really enjoyed playing together," says the pianist. "We both brought out something in the other's playing that only happens when the two of us play together. It's a very conversational way of playing." Phillips is quick to agree. "We noticed that we really had a lot in common in terms of our approach to music and jazz, with more of a focus on lyricism and willingness to leave space to let the music breathe."

The two have documented their telepathic teamwork on Moment to Moment (Nick Phillips Music, 2014), joined by bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Jaz Sawyer. Recorded at Fantasy Studios, the album focuses on ballads- -including standards and originals—and evokes a distinctively meditative mood. A performance by the group to celebrate the album's release is scheduled for February 17 at Yoshi's Oakland.

Both Menzies and Phillips have broadly diverse musical backgrounds. Menzies' biography reflects a rich musical inheritance; her father, the trumpeter Eddie Henderson, is perhaps most widely known for his tenure with Herbie Hancock in the early 1970s. Her mother is a classically trained flautist, and her grandmother was a dancer at the original Cotton Club in Harlem. Menzies has bachelors and masters degrees in music from Berklee College and the University of Miami respectively, and in addition to keeping an active performing schedule in the Bay area, she's been a full-time faculty member of the Oakland School for the Arts, a leading arts high school and middle school in the region, from the time it was founded in 2001.

Phillips has been steeped in the world of jazz for nearly three decades. He studied trumpet at the University of the Pacific in the 1980s with Mike Vax, the former lead trumpeter with the Stan Kenton orchestra. Graduating with a degree in music management, Phillips landed a job with Concord Records right out of school. Since then, he's produced numerous recordings by artists including Nnenna Freelon, Poncho Sanchez, and Randy Brecker, and he currently oversees the label's extensive jazz reissue program. He's kept up his trumpet chops intermittently over the years, playing in jazz, pop, and salsa contexts, and he made a cameo appearance on Karrin Allyson's Grammy-nominated Footprints album, which he produced.

Menzies and Phillips had been playing together for some time before the idea of working on an album together surfaced. "Maybe after about six or seven months together," recalls Menzies, "I just popped the question to Nick. I asked him if he ever thought about putting our heads together and coming up with some repertoire that we both really liked and recording it—capturing our sound together. Nick had been on the other side of the board for so long and had produced so many incredible recordings with other artists that I don't think he ever considered recording his own music. I loved his sound from the get-go and really encouraged him. That was a big part of our relationship. I thought we were getting an incredible sound together, and I said let's keep it alive and let's also try to lay this down. Once we made the decision to record, it was just a real joy. I learned a ton from working with Nick."

Phillips found himself in a very familiar setting at Fantasy Studios for the recording session with Menzies. "I have worked on other projects there over the years, so I was very familiar with the studio and just how good it was. The piano that Cava played on for this recording was the piano that Bill Evans had selected for the studio. So, there's a lot of history to that studio for me personally. Adam Muñoz, who recorded and mixed the project, is really a virtuoso of an engineer. We recorded with the audiophile in mind every step of the way, working at 24 bit, 192 kilohertz, high res digital during the recording, during the mixing, and during the mastering. I felt really at ease recording there as did the other musicians, and I'm really thrilled not only with how this album came out musically in terms of our performances, but also how it sounds sonically. I think it just has a really beautiful natural sound to it."

The repertoire covered in Moment to Moment is entirely ballads, but Menzies and Phillips didn't set out with that focus firmly in mind. "I don't think we knew we were going to do that," says the pianist. "It's not like we sat down and said 'let's do a ballads album.' But one of the things that we noticed was that we gravitated towards music that really spoke in a human way, that embodied aspects of the human voice and explored human emotions. You get all that in ballads. They give you more space, too. They give you time to ingest what you're hearing and take a moment of pause and reflection. They breathe a little better."

Menzies and Phillips gave a great deal of thought to the song selection for the album. "They had to be songs that both Cava and I were passionate about," says Phillips, "that had special meaning for us, and that we felt we could put our own personal spin on. For example, 'The Peacocks,' the Jimmy Rowles tune that we used as the opener, sets the tone for the whole album. It's one of the most beautiful tunes I've ever heard, and one we both love. I definitely hear an impressionist classical influence in the way the tune is written, the way dissonance is so beautifully handled in terms of the juxtaposition of the melody against the harmony."

Another standout on the recording is "Phantoms," a tune that serves as the title track of an album by Menzies' father (Steeplechase, 1994). "Nick actually brought that tune in," says Menzies. "We were exploring my dad's music and, we were both assuming that it was my dad's original composition, but we later learned that Kenny Barron had written it. It has a sort of haunting melody to it, in a Phrygian/ flamenco style, with some of the chords and harmonies having a very dissonant, really beautiful sound."

The album also includes the standards "For All We Know," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "Speak Low," as well as "Almost Blue," by Elvis Costello—a tune recorded at one time by Chet Baker, an important influence on Phillips— along with two originals by Menzies and Phillips. The trumpeter's contribution is a song called "You." "I do a fair amount of composing and writing," says Phillips, "and when I presented this tune to Cava for consideration on the album, she really liked it right away, and we felt it was something we could really do our thing with. In terms of my influences in composition, Joe Locke has certainly been an inspiration. I love his writing on ballads. This tune actually also has a really nice set of lyrics by Cliff Goldmacher, and I hope a vocalist will be inspired to record it someday."

Menzies' original, "Mal's Moon," was inspired by the experience of seeing her nine-year-old son, Imalu, looking out his bedroom window during the June 2013 occurrence of the "supermoon," when the earth, moon, and sun are all in line and the moon is in its closest approach to the earth. "We pulled open his window blinds, and the silhouette of him against the flooding moonlight was just beautiful and profound, I thought. I sat down at the piano and tried to capture that in sound —the sense of wonder and the time-stopping feeling that you get when you really look at nature and see something as beautiful as the moon. That's the first section of the tune, painting that nighttime glow musically, and then the second section goes into a subtle march feel, which is kind of a tribute to my son and childhood. The song plays on those two things, the innocence and wonder that a kid feels, and the incredible and profound beauty of nature."

In rounding out the ensemble for the recording, Menzies and Phillips sought out other musicians they felt could work well with their very collaborative approach to music. Phillips recommended bassist Jeff Chambers. "Jeff was the first person that came to mind. I've heard him play live and on recordings over many years, including on some Concord projects back in the day. He's an incredible musician and very creative, but he also really holds things down. His time is just rock solid, and he's very nuanced, responsive, and musical in his playing. He proved to be the perfect guy for this recording on bass."

Menzies brought in drummer Jaz Sawyer. "Jaz has been a good friend of mine for a couple of years. We've played together in the Bay area, and we've worked together at the Oakland School for the Arts, were he had been the percussion teacher. I always admired and loved his playing—very inventive and creative. I've rarely heard drummers with the intuition and sensitivity he showed playing ballads with us." Altogether, the four musicians really jelled. "When we started rehearsing with Jeff and Jaz," says Phillips, "it became a four-way conversation. They were really in tune with what Cava and I were doing."

An interesting bit of background that ties in with the ensemble's very conversational approach is that Menzies made a point of having the lyrics handy for all the tunes during the recording session. "Anytime there's a piece of music that has a lyric," says the pianist, "you just have so much more of a frame of reference for an instrumental interpretation. It really helps shape the mood of the piece. It all boils down to the story, and what's trying to be conveyed. Having the story there and digging into the words lets you really dive into each phrase. You're speaking without using words, putting the same feeling across. That's the ultimate challenge."

It's especially natural for Menzies to emphasize lyrics, considering her focus in teaching; she's the chair of the vocal department at the Oakland School for the Arts. "So much of what I promote and produce is vocal. Even in my immediate community, it's always a shocker that I play piano, and people ask me how I make that dichotomy work. I had to find a way to bridge those two things and make sure that they both speak to each other and that what I do by day can inform what I do by night. I also make it a big priority that the vocalists I teach aren't just vocalists. Singers sometimes get a bad rap for not knowing the theory behind the music. I really try to dismantle all of those ideas and make sure that everybody's a well-rounded musician. To see Oakland kids really being serious about their craft and making some great choices to become creative leaders—it's exciting to be a part of that. I'm so proud of our school. It's really an incredible place. I feel fortunate to work somewhere that I love, that I'm passionate about."

Another noteworthy incidental connection to Moment to Moment—both its mood and title—is the fact that Phillips is a practicing Buddhist. He's been deeply influenced by the pianist Kenny Werner, whom Phillips has worked with as a producer and whose book, Effortless Mastery, is a well-known spiritual handbook for musicians. "The whole concept of returning to present moment awareness—I think that's largely what this album's all about, really. The best jazz comes when you're not trying too hard, you're not thinking too hard, but you're just there in the moment; you're a part of what's happening, and you're responding to what's happening. Preconceived ideas, like thinking, 'when I get to this bar in the music, I'm going to play this lick that I learned'— if you're playing music that way, it's not going to sound fresh; it's not going to sound spontaneous. A lot of what makes this album special to me is that there was a very 'present-moment' communication happening between all of us as we were making this recording."

Menzies shares the trumpeter's observations and sensibilities. "For anybody who dives into music, there is a meditative quality to it if you're really in tune with yourself and getting in touch with what's happening. The whole point of why we're doing music is to go inside of yourself and explore within, to try to draw out what you're feeling and what's going on inside of you and share that with other people. I always have a meditative experience while I'm playing as long as my mind is not getting in the way, which it sometimes does. That's part of the work as well—just fighting your mind and really trying to listen. A lot of the principles apply. I definitely can relate to that. Whether or not Nick and I are both practicing the same things religiously and personally, I think those are the things we love about each other's playing. Both of us strive to have a very sensitive touch, and we're both trying to really listen. That in and of itself is a great practice."

Photo credit:
Capriece Batchelor



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