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Nick Hempton: The Way It Is

David A. Orthmann By

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I like to chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets absurd; sometimes I'm quite happy with it. And sometimes I'll spin some nonsense story, it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me. Sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time.
The Business (Positone, 2011) is a milestone in the career of Nick Hempton. Since arriving in the USA from his native Australia in 2004, the 35-year-old saxophonist, composer, and bandleader has slowly but surely worked his way up the ladder of the notoriously competitive New York City jazz scene. Hempton's second date as a leader is a testament to his talent, dedication, hard work, and to a willingness not to take himself too seriously. The disc is distinguished by an unusually cohesive band of strong-minded individuals, compositions by Hempton that sound genuinely original even as they stay within the broad confines of the jazz mainstream and, perhaps most importantly, his mature, assured voice as a soloist.

Chapter Index
  1. A Band Sound
  2. Working with a Producer
  3. Adding the Tenor Saxophone
  4. Stable Personnel
  5. The Business
  6. A Sense of Humor
  7. Consistency and Change
  8. Non-Original Compositions
  9. Traditional-Style Playing

A Band Sound

All About Jazz: Congratulations on the release of The Business. It's definitely a worthy successor to Nick Hempton Band (Self Produced, 2009), your first date as a leader.

Nick Hempton: I feel like it's not an improvement but a development from the first record. I actually listened to the first album about a month or so ago. I'm happy with it. It still stands up. The band as a whole has developed over the last few years. And I think that the band sound is really what I've been going for.

AAJ: That's one of impressive things about the new record. It really does have a band sound. These days, that's something unique.

NH: There's more and more of that happening. There are people putting bands together with the same guys. But I still think that it's a relative rarity. I think that it's very obvious—you can hear it straight away when a band's been working together for a long time, as opposed to a pick-up group. In the old days they used to talk about keeping a band together. I think that's a concept that really doesn't exist anymore. Maybe in the '50s you could tour enough with a band, and constantly work as a unit. Unless you're someone like Branford Marsalis, you can't do that. For most people, I think, that's beyond us. Having the same guys working together once a month or so—that's about as close as we can get.

AAJ: It's really a shame that the economics work against it.

NH: Well, there are really a lot of factors as to why that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore.

AAJ: There used to be a circuit—in this country, anyway—of clubs where bands could work on an ongoing basis. Certain bands would tour for six months a year. Louis Hayes used to tell me stories about working regularly with Horace Silver.

NH: I've heard those stories, too. That sounds like a dream to us now.

AAJ: Even though guys didn't always love being on the road, at least they worked consistently and bands got tight that way. You can hear the results of it on their records.

NH: Horace Silver is a great example of that. He had the ideal working band sound, with the same guys working really hard for ages, touring a lot and making records. Those were some of the tightest bands ever, I think. That's what we're all aiming for. We all do what we can.

Working with a Producer

AAJ: How did you make the connection with Marc Free of Posi-Tone Records?

NH: I think I bugged Marc for a couple of years. When we made the first record—I put that out myself—I contacted him when I had the masters ready. We had a couple of meetings, and he liked it. But I guess it wasn't the right time for either one of us. I called him after it came out, and it was reviewed quite well and was getting radio play. I got in touch and told him we were getting ready to do another one. And I guess he thought we were all ready to work together. It worked out really well.

AAJ: Describe the differences between working with a producer and an established record label as opposed to doing everything yourself.

NH: I would say that having a label has it pros and cons. I kind of got used to having complete control over the product. Having said that, Marc has been very good in working with me. There's a lot of give-and-take in our working relationship. I don't feel like decisions have been made that I'm not happy with. It's been a very positive experience. It takes a lot of pressure off the band to have a producer who says, "This is what I want." And then we have a discussion. The entire weight isn't on my shoulders. It makes things easier. Also, it took a lot of pressure off of me in terms of putting out the entire record.

Adding the Tenor Saxophone

AAJ: Unlike your first record, in which you played the alto exclusively, there are a couple of tracks on The Business featuring your tenor saxophone. Was the tenor your first horn? Please comment on your decision to include the tenor on the new record.

NH: Alto was definitely my first horn. When I was living in Sydney, there were jazz gigs, but not as many as one hoped for. So we did things such as rock 'n' roll, R & B, and various other kinds of gigs. At that point, I played jazz on alto and rock 'n' roll on tenor. I would put the tenor into the jazz gigs now and again, but it was never really a focus. For the last few years, I felt like playing it more and more, and have put more work into it. It's not equal to the alto or anything, but more and more I'm trying to get it in there. It's been really interesting to me. I'm learning the differences between the two horns. Like I say, I've played both of them side by side for years, and now I'm working out the real intricacies of the two instruments, like tone production and technique. I'm hoping it's going to change and develop.

AAJ: Based on the record's two tenor tracks, the character of your improvising on the instrument is a little different than on alto. It's kind of a nice change.

Yotam Silberstein

NH: It is a change. In fact, in the studio, Yotam Silberstein, who plays guitar with us—but doesn't play with the band that often—says that from alto to tenor it sounded like two different guys. I'm kind of happy with that because I think that you have to treat them as two different instruments. Like, playing my alto licks on tenor just sounds like an alto player playing tenor. I'm working on getting a different vocabulary on both horns. Eventually the idea will be to meld some sort of style that works on both of them.

AAJ: Sonny Stitt's playing on alto and tenor created very different sounds.

NH: He's really the guy I look at for inspiration. I think he's been my favorite saxophonist forever. Tone-wise, he's the guy I copied on alto most of all. No so much on tenor because I must say that I like his alto playing better than his tenor playing. You're right, I think he has quite different styles on the two of them. His tenor playing seems to go back to much older styles.


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