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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.

Stable Personnel

AAJ: With one exception, the personnel is the same on both records. You've managed to keep a band together for the past few years despite the challenges of finding steady work. What's your secret?


From left: Dan Aran, Marco Panascia, Nick Hempton, Art Hirahara

NH: It's not really keeping the guys together. As much as I'd like to have them on a salary like the old days, that's not really the case. I think that we work often enough, but not too often. They're always ready and looking forward to the next gig that comes along. They're not getting bored with the material and taking some other gig instead of mine. Generally, the guys have a great time playing. That may be the secret behind it. That's really what I want to bring to the bandstand—the band having a good time—because I think it will lead to the audience having a good time. I think that's really it. The guys just enjoy doing it.

AAJ Please offer your impressions of the band and their contributions to The Business.

AAJ: I think that the reason the band works well together is because [bassist] Marco Panascia, [drummer] Dan Aran, and [pianist] Art Hirahara have different personalities. I was just lucky that it worked out that way when I put the band together. It's wasn't really scientific. I just found the guys that I liked the sound of. Marco is a great swinger. He loves nothing more than to swing at a medium tempo, laying down a solid groove. Art's very adventurous. He likes to stretch out, and takes me in new directions. Dan has an extremely strong groove, and also takes inspirations from world music and other styles of music. He has really open ears. So he brings all styles of music to the band. Certainly, all three of them push me in directions I have never gone before, every time we play together.

So that's certainly what keeps it interesting for me. I think that it's possible to play with the same guys for years, and it would become boring, but I've never felt that way. Hopefully, that comes across on the record. Generally, that's how I feel when we're playing on stage—and even in that fairly uncomfortable studio setting.

AAJ: The studio is a rather sterile environment.

NH: It's not made for great creativity. It's fighting against that. But even in the studio I found that they were introducing new ideas and really pushing me to go in different directions, which is quite a talent on their part.

The Business

AAJ: What exactly does The Business refer to?

NH: Many different things. Obviously, the music business. It's [also] an expression that we use in Australia and in England, which never really came across here. I can't think of a version that you would be able to print. It actually means "the shit"—we're laying something down, and this is the way it is.

AAJ:The real thing, or something like that.

NH: Exactly. That's what I meant. I was aware it didn't really mean that in this country. It means enough other things that it's going to work on other levels as well. So we pushed a little bit with the record label. I think that Marc was a bit nervous about it. It was one the battles that I managed to win.

A Sense of Humor

AAJ: Your absurd sense of humor comes out in website posts, the liner notes of the first record, and some of the titles of your original compositions. Does humor surface in live shows as well?

NH: Well, I like to think so. Certainly, I like to have a chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets more absurd than others. Sometimes I'm quite happy with it. And sometimes I'll spin some nonsense story, and it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me, which is ok. And sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time. I know that when I go to hear a performance, if it's just song after song, it may be great, but I like the break and getting to know the performers—even if it's not a description of the music exactly, just some kind of vocalization of what's going on the stage.

AAJ: It makes the audience feel closer to the performer.

NH: Absolutely. And it comes naturally to me. I'm quite happy to pick up a microphone and just talk nonsense for awhile. There's not much of that on the new record, sadly. There wasn't the room for it. I quite enjoyed the liner notes on the first one, because I could do whatever I wanted. There was nobody telling me that there's no place for this kind of nonsense on a CD jacket.

AAJ: The notes on the first record were a refreshing change from the serious, art-for-art's-sake kind of stuff on most liners.

NH: I could have done that, but it didn't really feel like me. I like to have a laugh at ourselves when we're playing this music. We're not changing the world. It's jazz. We're having a good time. You have to have a sense of humor about yourself and about your band mates and the type of music you're playing. That's kind of how I feel about it. I would feel strange to put out an album with deadly serious liner notes telling about how important that music was.
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