If you're a brilliant young pianist who loves to make music on the spot but can't sing or write lyrics, jazz may well be your calling. That's what happened with 31-year-old Twin Citian Bryan Nichols, but his muse also has a communal component.
"I think I like the idea that not only can I sort of musically interpret what my mood or what my spirit is, but that I can be interacting with two, three, four, five people, however many, who are all doing the same thing," he said.
While the Twin Cities music scene churns out new indie rock bands by the hundreds every year, new jazz ensembles develop less frequently. The Bryan Nichols Quintet is somewhat unusual, not only because of its relatively large size but also because its leader believes in a 'team' approach to improvisation.
Nichols, who won a McKnight Foundation Fellowship last year, likes to play with musicians who are also long-time friends. He met saxophonist Mike Lewis when he was 14 and along with Lewis playing in the Minnesota Institute for Talented Youth. He ran into drummer JT Bates at the old Artists Quarter in St. Paul when they were teens. Bassist James Buckley was an Eau Claire teenager who connected with Nichols through the "Grammy in the Schools" music program. But for Nichols, it's not just familiarity that brought them together.
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"These guys are some of the most brilliant musicians I know," he said.
And, said Nichols, they all share the same philosophy.
"I grew up in a generation that respects bands," he said. "Each one of us can play really great solos, and we'll do that in the context of the album or the context of a concert, or whatever. But also we are up here, the five of us together because we believe in this thing and are trying to do this thing together well."
Nichols writes compositions that let the quintet members shine individually and as a unit. And that impresses local jazz writer and blogger Pamela Espeland. Espeland said many musicians in Nichols' position tend to hog the spotlight.
"As the composer, as the leader, as the piano player, he could be doing that and he's not," Espeland said. "He's part of the ensemble, and oftentimes, what the focus is on is the horns."
The horn players in this case are the saxophonists Mike Lewis and Brandon Wozniak. Nichols admits both have signature styles at opposite ends of the improvisational spectrum, but they somehow compliment each other.
"Mike is like this huge personality, huge sound, and these super squirrelly, beautiful, crazy lines," he said. "And then Brandon's like a laser beam or like a buzz saw or something. And so, when you get them together they're perfect. There are times where I could just sit back and go 'this is awesome.' This is what I would like to watch."
Friday and Saturday, the Bryan Nichols Quintet is celebrating its new CD, "Bright Places," with shows at St. Paul's Artists Quarter. To Espeland, it's a layered, yet listener-friendly jazz record.
"The compositions are really interesting," she said. "They're actually sort of hummable tunes within it. If you hear it, you're going to come away recognizing and know some of this music, which doesn't always happen in contemporary jazz and modern jazz."
The Bryan Nichols Quintet seems manageable compared to his other nine-member group, which consists of the quintet plus guitar, trumpet, another bassist, and tuba. It's called "We are Many."