The Morris Nanton Trio: Forty-Eight Years of Musical Rapport


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"We go on the bandstand to kill, loaded for bear," bassist Norman Edge says, describing the relish he and pianist Morris Nanton bring to their trio performances. Shortly after Nanton's service discharge in 1956, he met Edge, and their connection was immediate.

For a full forty-eight years Nanton and Edge have played together, longer than many marriages last. Drummer Jeff Brillinger is the junior member of the Morris Nanton Trio, with a mere twenty-six years of seniority. Such stability is remarkable in the jazz world, where even the most successful working groups are in a constant state of flux.

While Nanton is the leader of the trio, he is a reserved person, preferring to let his music speak for him. Edge, an accomplished musician in both jazz and classical spheres, often functions as spokesperson for the group. "We were like brothers," Edge explains. "Our mothers were interchangeable. My mother loved Morris like another son, and his mother felt the same about me."

Nanton and Edge's well-honed musical rapport in the trio, and sometimes as a duo, are frequently on display throughout New Jersey. The trio currently has a regular gig every second Thursday of the month at Shanghai Jazz, a jazz club featuring Chinese cuisine in Madison, New Jersey. City-centric New Yorkers may feel they too should be loaded for bear, for the trek into New Jersey. However, Madison is easily accessible from Penn Station by commuter train, and Shanghai Jazz is a pleasant three-block walk from the station. Yet, the Morris Nanton Trio's performances remain one of Jersey's best kept secrets.

On this particular second Thursday, the Northeast was swept by record wind-storms. Inside the safe haven of Shanghai Jazz, several regulars blamed the weather for what they considered a poor turnout. While only a handful of seats remained empty, they were used to sitting shoulder to shoulder when the Morris Nanton Trio hits. Most clubs in Manhattan would be delighted with that level of turnout, even on a more hospitable night. Their fans may not have their own subculture like phishheads or Deadheads, but Nanton and Edge have a dedicated following, more than willing to brave a little wind to hear them play. Many of the faithful there were friends of the trio, having listened to them throughout New Jersey for years.

"We've played long engagements," Edge explained. "When people wanted what we had to offer, they knew where to find us. We were at the Cove (a now defunct club in New Jersey) Twenty-two years. It was the kind of place people could bring their friends and family." And so word spread.

Their fans certainly were not disappointed this night. The trio served up typically tasteful and swinging sets, mixing jazz and pop standards, interpreting them with equal flair. "Willow Weep for Me" particularly showed Nanton's range, from his down-home, bluesy introduction to his rhapsodic solo lines.

Edge also shows tremendous range, soloing arco and pizzicata. Edge has taught and performed cello and violin, as well as bass, but when asked if he would ever experiment with the cello in a jazz setting, he demurs, "I've always found my responsibilities as a bassist are sufficient for me." He does recommend bass players develop their bowing techniques, advising "It gives players flexibility and opens up the palette."

Throughout the set, their focus is strictly music. Nobody introduces the tunes, or tells jokes. In between sets, all three men mix easily with the audience, greeting old friends and new acquaintances.

Currently, if you want to hear Nanton and Edge, you will have to attend one of their live shows, or spend hours searching used records stores, because none of the five sessions they recorded together is available on CD. The Morris Nanton Trio's first two LPs were interpretation of Broadway musicals recorded for Warner Brother in 1959. Drummer Ossie Johnson joined them for the first, Flower Drum Song. A few months later Charli Persip took his place in the drummer's chair for their take on Jerome Kern's Roberta.

In the mid-sixties, they moved to Prestige Records, releasing three LPs, all with drummer Al Beldini. Preface yielded their biggest "hit" Ja-Da, which generated a fair amount of radio play for the trio. Something We've Got followed in much the same vein, mixing jazz standards, and a few popular movie themes, all done with their own personal stamp. However, their final Prestige session, Soul Fingers , added Johnny Murray, Jr. on Conga, and featured a guest appearance by Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers on the opening track "Trouble of the World." While all their LPs are sought after by collectors, the "Pucho effect" gives Soul Fingers an additional boost in the ebay/collectors market.

Sadly, it is unlikely any of these sessions will be reissued on CD anytime soon. Fantasy Records, owners of the Prestige catalog, has rebuffed Nanton's reissue inquiries and has turned down his offer to buy the session masters. You can hear Edge in a rare recorded sideman gig on Fantasy's OJC reissue of Gene Ammons's Bad Bossa. There is also the possibility Shanghai Jazz may release a live CD on their independent label, following up their first release by the Earl May Trio.

At least those in the New York-New Jersey area have the opportunity to hear the trio live. Forty-eight years of musical rapport and experience is worth the trip.

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