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Bryan Nichols (solo piano) – Looking North – Shifting Paradigm

Pianist Bryan Nichols takes listeners northward.

Bryan Nichols (solo piano) – Looking North [TrackList follows] – Shifting Paradigm SP-119 46:20 [5/27/16] ****:

The American upper-Midwest is a location of placid beauty: wintery landscapes, warm summer nights, windswept countryside, and lonely rural roads; forests, lakes, towns, and families. Minnesota is the place which permeates Bryan Nichols’ first solo piano album, the aptly titled Looking North. Nichols grew up in what is known as the Star of the North, spent time in Iowa and Chicago, and then returned home. The ten tracks on Looking North (eight originals and two regional cover tunes) form a centralized narrative which surveys raising children and being married; living amid nature; and the act of musical creation.

Minneapolis-St. Paul and the surrounding Minnesota area isn’t widely acknowledged by outsiders as having a thriving jazz community, but in reality Nichols is part of a first-rate jazz fellowship. The Bad Plus is probably the most recognized jazz group from Minneapolis. Nichols is friends with Bad Plus drummer Dave King, who is also active in the less-familiar Minnesota jazz trio, Happy Apple. Happy Apple’s 1997 debut had an important impact on Nichols as a teen discovering jazz, so when Nichols decided to do a solo piano record with a distinct regional flavor, he knew he wanted to adapt something by Happy Apple, thus his rendition of “Lullaby for Sharks.” The Happy Family version features sax, drums and bass. Nichols strips everything down, elevates the melodic lines, adds a poetic tonality, and advances the melancholy essence. One of the memorable pieces is “Lonesome Tremolo Blues,” a 2009 song by Minnesota folk-rock band the Pines. The Pines are distinguished for their shadowy and sedate sound. Nichols slows the tempo of “Lonesome Tremolo Blues” to a decelerated emphasis, accentuates the tune’s sable luster and provides an instrumental impressionism which reflects the dim lyrical quality on the Pines’ song.

Nichols’ eight compositions all share a lingering aesthetic – where notes, melodies, themes and motifs waft into memory and sift into the consciousness. “We Live Here” has the same title as a Pat Metheny number, but otherwise has nothing in common with Metheny’s music. “We Live Here” is open-framed and investigatory. Single notes hover in the air, Nichols favors lower, somber piano keys, and there is a splintered rhythmic characteristic. “Lake View,” which is an audio image of Nichols’ home, displays a serene, iridescent exterior but in the interior, there is a minor dissonance, like something slightly ominous sliding deep beneath a ripple. That’s followed by the more up-tempo “Act Natural” which isn’t about ecology, but rather the nature of improvisation. Nichols explains, “Act natural, like you know, you’re playing modern jazz in odd time signatures. I love making honest music, but I love that the idea of honest, natural music- making can take so many forms.” “Act Natural” has a sprightly, humor-enriched attribute which supplies a nice contrast to the quieter, more solemn material.

Family is the setting for “We Build and Destroy,” which is not an elegy to man’s caustic tendencies, but instead an appealing, meditative ode to his preschool-aged sons. Nichols says, “The title sounds misleadingly dark perhaps, but it’s really about the energy that kids can bring: simultaneously generative and destructive.” While the composition’s mettle is mostly contemplative, the final minute has the enthusiasm which mirrors young children’s imagination and playfulness. There are also fully-improvised cuts, such as the muted, lengthy “Fractures,” which Nichols states embodies momentary uncertainty, “Especially when I improvise, I’d like to think we can’t always tell what is coming apart, and what is coming together, or even the form the new things could take.” The concluding piece, the hymn-like “Finders” utilizes a reiterating melodic stipple, which Nichols shapes, develops, and alters into an almost ethereal platform for fluid improvisation. Nichols clarifies, “I think we’re all in the process of finding ourselves: as musicians, as writers, where we’re from, where we’re going. So we’re all finders, just looking. For me, this process starts and ends at home, and at the piano, and I think this record is absolutely a representation of that.” Indeed, Bryan Nichols has accomplished his goal; he’s created regional jazz music which can be appreciated by a comprehensive audience.

TrackList: Unringing a Bell; Lonesome Tremolo Blues; Fractures; We Build and Destroy; Lake View; Act Natural; Very Low Impact; Lullaby for Sharks; We Live Here; Finders.

—Doug Simpson

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