The jazz world is built on the backs of musicians we used to call “journeymen”, artists who have learned their craft, paid their dues, and perfected their skills playing modest gigs of many types. They are the backbone of this music. The drummer and composer Reggie Nicholson, who led a wonderful quintet this past Saturday, is one such musician. His Brass Concept: James Zollar, trumpet, Marshall Sealy, French horn, Steve Swell, trombone, and Joseph Daley, tuba, shared an hour of meaty, alt-kilter music with a lucky few at the Community Music School of Springfield on October 15.
“Journeyman” is a dated (and gender-bound) term of faint praise. But I think of those freelancers and side persons, many of them drummers and bassists, as the connective tissue of the music, circulating stories and innovations from band to band.
Nicholson is a long-time member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Black-centered Chicago institution formed in the 1960s, brilliantly documented by George Lewis in “A Power Stronger Than Itself”. He has performed with AACM luminaries like Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton and Amina Claudine Myers, and anchored bands led by Myra Melford, Leroy Jenkins, Fay Victor and Oliver Lake. He is the epitome of the talented, unsung musician who makes everyone around him sound better. It’s always cause for celebration when someone who has so ably served others is spotlighted.
Nicholson has absorbed a founding principle of the AACM: to compose and perform original music that expands the tradition. His mastery of other instruments (he played marimba on Saturday) and his embrace of interesting organizing principles (he also leads his Percussion Concept), are in keeping with AACM precepts.
Brass ensembles have a long history in European classical music, and are frequently employed in sacred and patriotic settings. Nicholson brings a risk-taking attitude to the genre, creating stimulating soundscapes that are both mellifluous and knotty. The sound was rarely loud, never brash, and often beautifully rounded, but filled with complicated counterpoint and dense chords. Most of the material was drawn from his 2009 recording, Surreal Feel, which featured Zollar and Daley. Eschewing swing convention and easy hooks, the music was highly composed, but left sections where one, two or three voices improvised. On pieces like “Celestials”, “Surreal Feel” and “Local Express”, I heard compositional echoes of Henry Threadgill, the Pulitzer Prize winning composer who Nicholson worked with in the mid-80s.
Like Nicholson, the brass section are all veterans with decades of varied experience, including as leaders. They read down complicated charts and soloed with style and enthusiasm. Trumpeter James Zollar, proud brother of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of Urban Bush Women,was featured in Robert Altman’s film “Kansas City” and Madonna’s video “My Baby’s Got a Secret”, and has played in hundreds of settings with Cecil McBee, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, among others. He seemed to lightly direct his brass brethren through Nicholson’s written thickets, and used multiple mutes to add texture and humor.
Marshall Sealy also used a mute, a rarity for the French horn, given its large bell. His career includes work in show orchestras (Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr., Melba Moore), pit orchestras (Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey, Broadway productions of Lion King, Beauty & the Beast) and TV orchestras (Emmy and Grammy Awards). He has performed with Max Roach, Steve Coleman, Lester Bowie and Ray Charles, taught at Berklee College of Music and was the Director of Music at the Harlem School of the Arts.
Steve Swell is an old friend who produced a memorable Jazz Shares concert in Northampton with his Kende Dreams on March 13, 2020, just as the curtain closed on live performance. Other notable Valley Swell-sightings include a 2016 concert at Hampshire College, and big band work under Magic Triangle auspices with William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra, Jemeel Moondoc’s Jus’ Grew Orchestra and Alan Silva’s Celestrial Communication Orchestra. His five minute unaccompanied solo, full of gutbucket and extended vocabulary, was some of the most bluesy of the evening.
Joe Daley has been a hero of mine since I heard him in Sam Rivers’ great small groups of the 1970s. His large ensemble releases of the last decade: The Seven Deadly Sins, The Seven Heavenly Virtues and Portraits: Wind, Thunder and Love, are towering achievements, which he hopes to tour in celebration of his 75th birthday in 2024. His playing added plenty of bottom, but I wish Nicholson had made room for him to rip some groove at some point.
There are musicians who, like basketball players who set picks, take charges and box out, do the little things that ensures the success of the group. But that selflessness can sometimes obscure other talents and higher ambitions. Reggie Nicholson and the other members of his Brass Concept are artists like that, first call sidemen with their own projects that teem with creativity.