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Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips: Their Moment

Bob Kenselaar By

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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."

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