Nimbus Sextet Q&A with Joe Nichols

Welcome to Magazine Sixty, Joe. Let’s begin by how would define Jazz for the modern era? What can it uniquely say about the world around us?

Jazz to me hasn’t changed that much in its fundamental definition. Jazz has always borrowed from different forms of popular music. Whichever form it decides to take is a reflection of that ethos. It always welcomes other music, responsive to what is popular and trending. It will improvise and adapt it to create something exciting and new. A lot of new jazz draws on hip-hop, neo-soul, electronic music, house, and on Afrobeat and world music genres as well. That to me is what jazz is in the modern era. I think that the world can learn a lot from its message of inclusivity.

How did you first learn to play piano? And who initially inspired you?

I first learned piano when I was around 11 years old. We had a piano at home, which I now have in my flat. I have never taken a lesson in my life. I decided to teach myself music theory, and I am lucky enough to be blessed with perfect pitch, so I can use my ear to compose and learn music. So, when I was a kid my dad had been playing Horace Silver’s ‘Song For My Father’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Head Hunters’. Those albums really gave me an appetite for jazz, especially jazz-funk, fusion and world jazz. McCoy Tyner’s playing on ‘John Coltrane Plays The Blues’ was another big early influence, as was Ahmad Jamal’s ‘Poinciana’ from his 1958 ‘Live At Pershing’ album, with his exquisite use of space and dynamics on the piano.

Nimbus Sextet debut album, Dreams Fulfilled is released on Acid Jazz this October which sounds like a very apt title. Is there a particular piece which you are most proud of? And how would you describe the importance of an album’s worth of music in today’s world of streaming individual tracks?

Sure, you can have an individual track that you stream, that you really know, you get obsessed with. You then go and add to a playlist, but you don’t listen to the album the song is from. The musician or artist will often have a narrative to express, a message, an emotion or something they need to convey through the album and its tunes. I think this is a really important part of listening to an album all the way through. Trap Door and Dreams Fulfilled, both of them are really important within the narrative of the album.

Trap Door opens the album, it opens with piano and then goes into funk. That’s making a statement that we won’t be pigeonholed musically, that there are no constraints, that jazz welcomes everything. This is the ethos I want to get across with Nimbus Sextet.

Dreams Fulfilled, the title track and album closer, is an arrival of sorts. The album takes you through a lot of different sounds; it’s jazz, it’s funk, it’s world music, it’s neo-soul. By this point in the journey though, I’ve realised on a personal level that all our influences can be welcomed into the music, and by that token, that that is what the Nimbus Sextet sound is. Dreams Fulfilled is piano led, and it ends with piano, so it tells my story. The album starts and finishes with piano. It tells the formation of my musical voice, and the paths taken to get there, through collaboration with my bandmates and fellow composers, and through personal ups and downs.

Acid Jazz Records · Nimbus Sextet – Trap Door

How did you get introduced to Wayne A. Dickson (Groove Line Records) who manages the band, and what for you has been the importance of good management in the bands trajectory?

Martin Fell, our saxophone player, introduced me to Wayne. We played at the Sub Club, supporting Gilles Peterson, and Wayne came along. According to him, he saw the potential in us immediately, and during that performance was already convinced that Acid Jazz Records would be interested in signing us! It was from there that discussions began and we started a working relationship.

Wayne is very experienced in the music industry, and is connected with professionals across the globe. Equally, he knows what our audience is, and how to expand that audience. Wayne has spent his whole life listening to soul and jazz oriented music, by his own admission, to an obsessive level! This ultimately led to him forging a career for himself in catalogue with his Groove Line Records and BBR labels. As the album’s producer, he used that experience to craft the sound you hear on the album along with Luigi Pasquini (Anchor Lane Studios), who expertly engineered the recordings. Wayne has a very intuitive understanding of how people respond to music, and how to deliver that music in a way they will enjoy hearing it.

From a creative perspective, having a manager who understands my vision and believes in it really liberated me because it means I now focus more on my music, and have a clearer vision of the direction I want to take us in as a band. We all have a shared dedication and belief that Nimbus Sextet should go in whichever direction the music demands, rather than to be put in one box. Wayne and I know how to put what the music dictates to us ahead of our own egos, which is something that will hopefully set the Nimbus project apart from others.

Buy and stream Trap Door here:

Can you talk us through how you create music – is it inspired from a single idea, or from something you have watched, read or listened to? How the initial idea is then translated into a fully formed piece of music?

My own compositions are an amalgamation of different things, often of subconscious ideas at first. Pieces of music that come to my head, or sounds that have inspired me when I’m out in the world, like bird calls or machine rhythms. Once I have a concept, I’ll play it on piano alone and write the music episodically. I often have the beginnings of a piece, which will then suddenly be fully completed when another idea comes out of leftfield and basically demands to be in there.

When I bring compositions to the band, I’ll often workshop them with Alex (drums) and Mischa (bass). We’ll take the original ideas and put them in a more Nimbus sounding setting. The three of us honed our sound with our previous jazz-funk group Jambouree. We have a musical telepathy, which is our own unique language but is transferable to compositions from the other members of Nimbus. The band’s creative process is ultimately spontaneous, and the music dictates to us where it needs to go. We always approach the music from the ground up. The compositions are constantly evolving too. We’re always re-writing our tunes and playing them differently live with each performance.

What are your views on so-called cultural appropriation, specifically in Jazz as there are increasing calls to recognise the music as the voice of protest?

There’s no doubt that jazz is a voice of protest against capitalism, neo-liberalism and its tokenistic championing of ideas and ideologies, and society’s lack of inclusivity. As a broad ideological point, jazz is always going to be a form of protest because it welcomes ideas and audiences from all over the place by definition, and it should be recognised as such. It’s actually quite cosmopolitan and multicultural.

With regards to the music itself, there’s no doubt that it’s protest music going back to the pre Civil War period in the United States, with slavery and slave songs – Wade In The Water and suchlike. The blues is fundamental to jazz. Even free jazz musicians like Archie Shepp, those accused of making the music inaccessible and elite, identified with the blues as a form of protest against racial inequality. They used its raw emotion in their free music, during the height of the Civil Rights movement. Bebop artists and trad jazzers before that also saw the importance of the blues as a form of freedom of expression. It has rallied against white supremacy from the beginning. The lack of equal opportunities for BAME musicians nowadays demonstrates a deeply institutionalized form of racial prejudice which is of course deeply upsetting and unfair, and we, all of us should do everything we can to change that. This inequality still very much exists at jazz school, where there is regimented focus on bebop theory and racially biased entry requirements that in many cases prohibit freedom of musical choice and opportunity among the people who created the music.

There is also a prevailing notion nowadays that bebop made jazz too academic, and somehow inaccessible to the modern generation. I think that’s the wrong interpretation. it was just one expression of jazz and one expression of a constantly evolving artform. To say that white musicians now are culturally appropriating the music would be to miss the point that jazz has aimed to be inclusive from the start, to retaliate against exclusion and ideas of fixed musical, cultural and racial prejudice. Jazz is a by-word for freedom of expression and improvisation. We look to explore all of that on our album.

How do you see live performance changing as a result of Covid-19? Is it always essential to have a physical audience in front of you?

Yes, it is essential to have a physical audience if you play the kind of music we play. It’s narrative, it’s expressive. Jazz is a live music, it’s improvised at its heart. You need people to be able to see that, to see the spontaneity and emotionality of it. The pandemic has already changed everything. It’s shown the power of video content, of radio and audio releases to keep audiences engaged while you cannot gig. Yet that can only last so long. Jazz needs to be live. All music needs to be live. Particularly for improvised styles of music, it’s necessary that you play them live because they can’t really exist otherwise, they can’t express themselves in the moment, without that platform.

And finally. Please share with us any forthcoming plans for Nimbus Sextet?

We have a second single coming out at the beginning of October: ‘Lily White’ qritten predominently by our saxophonist, Martin Fell. Our debut album follows later in the month, with three live videos during the autumn and winter to help to promote it. The first of these videos, Trap Door, has just been premiered exclusively by Jazzed. It means a lot to us that people who can’t see us live right now can enjoy these.

Thankfully, we were lucky enough to enjoy our first national tour in February and March before lockdown, which was a great success. However, it’s been difficult for each of us having not been able to perform live since then, especially right now during the album campaign and release period. But we’re hoping to be able to play international jazz festivals and venues across the world when they reopen. We’ll soon start working on a second album, and see where the music takes us for that. It’s all very exciting! But for now, we are thrilled that people are already responding so positively to our ‘Dreams Fulfilled’ album, out October 23rd on Acid Jazz Records.

pre-order Dreams Fulfilled

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