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Ted Nash: The Goal Is Creativity

R.J. DeLuke By

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I have reached a place where I realize the most important thing for me to do is just create —Ted Nash
A New York City morning often starts early, sometimes 6 a.m., for this musician who is trying to elongate the hours available in a day. There's a lot to get to. Practicing the saxophone or flute. Sitting down to go through the elusive and demanding task of writing music worthy of the plateau, which these days seems to be a lot about commissioned work.

Ted Nash is in demand.

On the heels of his striking, and Grammy nominated, work for the renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Portrait in Seven Shades (The Orchard, 2010)—the orchestra's first recording of original music by a member other than Wynton Marsalis—he wrote and produced another long-form series of movements devoted to a central theme. Chakra (Plastic Sax Records) was released in September and is sure to draw acclaim similar to his work for JLCO.

He's already working on yet another commission for a large ensemble that will draw its inspirations from important speeches in history that were dedicated to peoples of the world gaining or maintaining freedom. When he's not calling on his writing muse, or flexing his distinguished saxophone chops on a gig, he is working on writing a screenplay. This is all part of the life of an artist who is flourishing. More and more people are taking notice.

Nash never went to college. He played with Lionel Hampton while in high school, toured Europe with Don Ellis as a teenager, moved to the Big Apple at 18 to find himself in the big bands of Gerry Mulligan, Chuck Israels Toshiko Akiyoshi and Mel Lewis. There were times of uncertainty, but as Nash, now 52, emerges as one of the remarkable and identifiable voices in jazz, his focus is singular.

"I have reached a place where I realize the most important thing for me to do is just create," says Nash. "It's not about making money. It's not about being famous. It's not about any of that. It's about: I need to create. I need to allow myself to be as creative as possible. Whether the stuff is supported and heard by people, or whether it's for me. Whatever. Embracing that creativity and allowing myself the time and energy to do that" is fundamental.

Nash, a fiend on sax, has been writing for large ensembles for many years and lately finds his pen quite active the JLCO, which has has been a member of for 15 years. His latest burst isn't related, however. It's a work based on the belief in chakra healing, and the seven movements are related to the seven chakras believed to control and direct a person's energy, guiding them—and sometimes blocking them—internally and externally.

"I'm very excited about it. It's one of my strongest creative efforts to date," he says. He had specific musicians in mind that he felt would bring it to life.

"There are some young musicians I wanted to feature, in particular Alphonso Horne [trumpet]. Christopher Ziemba, the young pianist at Julliard and a student of [pianist] Frank Kimbrough, whom I've worked with for years. Frank highly recommended him. Ulysses Owens, Jr. played drums on my last record, The Creep, (Plastic Sax Records, 2012). He's really talented and very colorful," Nash says. "I had certain people in mind that I wanted to feature who were younger and up and coming, playing great. And there's some veterans I've always admired and wanted record with, like Tim Hagans. Anat Cohen I've worked with, but I wanted to invite into my own creative circle. And a bunch of great musicians who crossed over into the studio work and commercial work. They have this ability to play, to read music very well and assimilate the music very quickly. Play all the woodwind doubles at a very high level. The meat of the band is made up of musicians like that. Very experienced. I knew I didn't have a lot of time to rehearse, so I really needed to get cats who could jump in there and understand this music quickly."

How the recording came about in the first place goes back a few years and in itself has a kind of mystic feel.

Nash was involved in a recording and encountered an assistant producer he had never met before. The man, a person of means, was effusive in his praise for Nash's body of work and approached him about writing music for a large ensemble. He was willing to put up the money. Nash went to his house and found him "in a sea of prescription bottles. He told me a story. He said, 'I was on death's door in the hospital. The doctors had pretty much given up on me.' But somebody who was working in the hospital came up to him quietly and said, 'This is against hospital regulations, but there's a healer coming from China. He's supposed to be amazing.'"

Doctors had pretty much given up on treatments and the man had few options. The meeting was arranged and, in a wheelchair, the would-be producer went to the lobby of New York City's Waldorf Astoria. "This Chinese man came down, sat with the patient and spoke to him for an hour," Nash says. "Touched him a little bit. Held his arm and did some things. At a certain point he got up to leave. The patient said 'Wait a minute. I'd love to work with you.' [The healer] said, 'We're done. We've done the work.' He left. Sure enough, this guy made a great recovery. he got his health back and his weight back. He still has some trouble, but he is still alive and it's been several years."

So the idea for the piece was to do with the chakra work. "I said fine. I didn't know much about the chakras. I studied a little bit about yoga ethics. I began at that point to research it. After I'd felt I did enough research to get a good idea of the difference between the chakras and how they are represented in many different ways, I actually met with a chakra healer and I had her do some work on me to get an idea of what that experience is like," recalls Nash. "She said, 'What do you feel you need work on?' I said communication. I was going through something ... It was a personal matter, but I couldn't communicate it. I couldn't talk about it and make clear what my intentions were; what I wanted. She said, 'Let's work on your fifth chakra, your throat chakra.' And she did. Later that day, I had this meeting and everything was very clear. I thought that was very interesting."

Nash spent a few months writing the music, but oddly lost touch with the man. For unknown reasons, he didn't participate further in the project. So Nash left it on the table for a couple years. Eventually, he returned to it, completed the work, then went about gathering a band to get the music documented. The result is the new, extraordinary album. Says the composer, "I'm happy with the band. It sounds great."



Where many large ensemble recordings storm out of the gate, the first number, "Earth (Muladhara)" is a stately ballad that has the feeling of an olden era. Nash shows great form on flute, soloing over slow, pulsing rhythms and contrapuntal horns. "Water merges into a soft jazz backdrop over which Charles Pillow blows a nice statement on alto sax, then it flows into a swinging thing that Hagans tears up on trumpet. "Fire" is an infectious riff, hard charging affair over non-standard, choppy, but right-on rhythms. Cohen's fiery clarinet stands out as it so often does. Martin Wind's bass solo is rock solid and funky. "Ether" is the most easy, flowing swing tune of the bunch. A delight. "Light" starts with Ulysses Owens brushwork on drums doing a tap dance with horns before it gets into a deep swing for Nash's solo (He only has two on the album) of the recording. "Cosmos" goes more into modern territory with changes in sonority, tempo and mood; rhythms both mainstream and modern.

It was recorded in one day, and the band was set in a standard big band formation, not with folks stuffed away in booths wearing headphones." It's the best way to do it. Everybody feels the music. You feel connected. the energy's all in the same room," the composer says. "You're talking about chakras and spiritual things. If you start putting people in different rooms, listening through headphones, the energy doesn't come through. It's a false coming together. The energy has to all vibrate within the room together to have a certain sound. You put up these mics to capture the room sound, which we used quite a bit on this. It was a good experience. To stand in front of the band rather than sit in a section, is always something I love to do."

Getting the music to fruition was special for Nash.

"It's always really exciting to get your music played by some really great musicians," he says. "I've been writing music for larger ensembles for several years. I've had some music recorded by Jazz at Lincoln Center. A long time ago with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. The more you do this, the better you get at sort of being able to predict what it's going to sound like. Your ear gets trained. You understand that if you put these instruments together in this way, and in this register, you're going to get a certain sound. that helps you make decisions to arrange this music. But I'm always surprised how it sounds when I hear it the first time. The balances. Mainly, it's the warmth and the human quality that is brought to the music. Especially when you're working with computers and things and you play it back and it's these kinds of sound that never has any expression. These musicians bring breath to it. Expression. That's what's so beautiful. You feel it shaping into something."

A striking thing about the music are the rhythms—mainstream at times and quite outside what might be expected at other times. "Ulysses is very creative," notes Nash. "After he listened to this music and rehearsed it, he started coming up with his own interpretation of grooves and things. That's the kind of creativity you want and you need in a big band. especially from the drummer, who is basically the conductor of the band. He's the engine behind the band."

As for its spirituality factor, Nash said he didn't set out for the music to slam people with that kind of impact. But "it is for me, just because being creative is a spiritual experience ... When I listen to these movements in relation to the chakras, I do feel they are closely aligned with what those chakras are about."
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