“I like to chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets absurd; sometimes I’m quite happy with it. And sometimes I’ll spin some nonsense story, it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me. Sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time.”
The Business (Posi-Tone, 2011) is a milestone in the career of Nick Hempton. Since arriving in the USA from his native Australia in 2004, the 35-year-old saxophonist, composer, and bandleader has slowly but surely worked his way up the ladder of the notoriously competitive New York City jazz scene. Hempton’s second date as a leader is a testament to his talent, dedication, hard work, and to a willingness not to take himself too seriously. The disc is distinguished by an unusually cohesive band of strong-minded individuals, compositions by Hempton that sound genuinely original even as they stay within the broad confines of the jazz mainstream and, perhaps most importantly, his mature, assured voice as a soloist.
A Band Sound
All About Jazz: Congratulations on the release of The Business. It’s definitely a worthy successor to Nick Hempton Band (Self Produced, 2009), your first date as a leader.
Nick Hempton: I feel like it’s not an improvement but a development from the first record. I actually listened to the first album about a month or so ago. I’m happy with it. It still stands up. The band as a whole has developed over the last few years. And I think that the band sound is really what I’ve been going for.
AAJ: That’s one of impressive things about the new record. It really does have a band sound. These days, that’s something unique.
NH: There’s more and more of that happening. There are people putting bands together with the same guys. But I still think that it’s a relative rarity. I think that it’s very obvious—you can hear it straight away when a band’s been working together for a long time, as opposed to a pick-up group. In the old days they used to talk about keeping a band together. I think that’s a concept that really doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe in the ’50s you could tour enough with a band, and constantly work as a unit. Unless you’re someone like Branford Marsalis, you can’t do that. For most people, I think, that’s beyond us. Having the same guys working together once a month or so—that’s about as close as we can get.
AAJ: It’s really a shame that the economics work against it.
NH: Well, there are really a lot of factors as to why that kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.
AAJ: There used to be a circuit—in this country, anyway—of clubs where bands could work on an ongoing basis. Certain bands would tour for six months a year. Louis Hayes used to tell me stories about working regularly with Horace Silver.
NH: I’ve heard those stories, too. That sounds like a dream to us now.
AAJ: Even though guys didn’t always love being on the road, at least they worked consistently and bands got tight that way. You can hear the results of it on their records.
NH: Horace Silver is a great example of that. He had the ideal working band sound, with the same guys working really hard for ages, touring a lot and making records. Those were some of the tightest bands ever, I think. That’s what we’re all aiming for. We all do what we can.
Working with a Producer
AAJ: How did you make the connection with Marc Free of Posi-Tone Records?
NH: I think I bugged Marc for a couple of years. When we made the first record—I put that out myself—I contacted him when I had the masters ready. We had a couple of meetings, and he liked it. But I guess it wasn’t the right time for either one of us. I called him after it came out, and it was reviewed quite well and was getting radio play. I got in touch and told him we were getting ready to do another one. And I guess he thought we were all ready to work together. It worked out really well.
AAJ: Describe the differences between working with a producer and an established record label as opposed to doing everything yourself.
NH: I would say that having a label has it pros and cons. I kind of got used to having complete control over the product. Having said that, Marc has been very good in working with me. There’s a lot of give-and-take in our working relationship. I don’t feel like decisions have been made that I’m not happy with. It’s been a very positive experience. It takes a lot of pressure off the band to have a producer who says, “This is what I want.” And then we have a discussion. The entire weight isn’t on my shoulders. It makes things easier. Also, it took a lot of pressure off of me in terms of putting out the entire record.
Adding the Tenor Saxophone
AAJ: Unlike your first record, in which you played the alto exclusively, there are a couple of tracks on The Business featuring your tenor saxophone. Was the tenor your first horn? Please comment on your decision to include the tenor on the new record.
NH: Alto was definitely my first horn. When I was living in Sydney, there were jazz gigs, but not as many as one hoped for. So we did things such as rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, and various other kinds of gigs. At that point, I played jazz on alto and rock ‘n’ roll on tenor. I would put the tenor into the jazz gigs now and again, but it was never really a focus. For the last few years, I felt like playing it more and more, and have put more work into it. It’s not equal to the alto or anything, but more and more I’m trying to get it in there. It’s been really interesting to me. I’m learning the differences between the two horns. Like I say, I’ve played both of them side by side for years, and now I’m working out the real intricacies of the two instruments, like tone production and technique. I’m hoping it’s going to change and develop.
AAJ: Based on the record’s two tenor tracks, the character of your improvising on the instrument is a little different than on alto. It’s kind of a nice change.
NH: It is a change. In fact, in the studio, Yotam Silberstein, who plays guitar with us—but doesn’t play with the band that often—says that from alto to tenor it sounded like two different guys. I’m kind of happy with that because I think that you have to treat them as two different instruments. Like, playing my alto licks on tenor just sounds like an alto player playing tenor. I’m working on getting a different vocabulary on both horns. Eventually the idea will be to meld some sort of style that works on both of them.
AAJ: Sonny Stitt’s playing on alto and tenor created very different sounds.
NH: He’s really the guy I look at for inspiration. I think he’s been my favorite saxophonist forever. Tone-wise, he’s the guy I copied on alto most of all. No so much on tenor because I must say that I like his alto playing better than his tenor playing. You’re right, I think he has quite different styles on the two of them. His tenor playing seems to go back to much older styles.
AAJ: With one exception, the personnel is the same on both records. You’ve managed to keep a band together for the past few years despite the challenges of finding steady work. What’s your secret?
From left: Dan Aran, Marco Panascia, Nick Hempton, Art Hirahara
AAJ Please offer your impressions of the band and their contributions to The Business.
AAJ: I think that the reason the band works well together is because [bassist] Marco Panascia, [drummer] Dan Aran, and [pianist] Art Hirahara have different personalities. I was just lucky that it worked out that way when I put the band together. It’s wasn’t really scientific. I just found the guys that I liked the sound of. Marco is a great swinger. He loves nothing more than to swing at a medium tempo, laying down a solid groove. Art’s very adventurous. He likes to stretch out, and takes me in new directions. Dan has an extremely strong groove, and also takes inspirations from world music and other styles of music. He has really open ears. So he brings all styles of music to the band. Certainly, all three of them push me in directions I have never gone before, every time we play together.
So that’s certainly what keeps it interesting for me. I think that it’s possible to play with the same guys for years, and it would become boring, but I’ve never felt that way. Hopefully, that comes across on the record. Generally, that’s how I feel when we’re playing on stage—and even in that fairly uncomfortable studio setting.
AAJ: The studio is a rather sterile environment.
NH: It’s not made for great creativity. It’s fighting against that. But even in the studio I found that they were introducing new ideas and really pushing me to go in different directions, which is quite a talent on their part.
AAJ: What exactly does The Business refer to?
NH: Many different things. Obviously, the music business. It’s [also] an expression that we use in Australia and in England, which never really came across here. I can’t think of a version that you would be able to print. It actually means “the shit”—we’re laying something down, and this is the way it is.
AAJ:The real thing, or something like that.
NH: Exactly. That’s what I meant. I was aware it didn’t really mean that in this country. It means enough other things that it’s going to work on other levels as well. So we pushed a little bit with the record label. I think that Marc was a bit nervous about it. It was one the battles that I managed to win.
A Sense of Humor
AAJ: Your absurd sense of humor comes out in website posts, the liner notes of the first record, and some of the titles of your original compositions. Does humor surface in live shows as well?
NH: Well, I like to think so. Certainly, I like to have a chat with the audience between songs. Sometimes it gets more absurd than others. Sometimes I’m quite happy with it. And sometimes I’ll spin some nonsense story, and it will fall flat and everyone will stare at me, which is ok. And sometimes it works, and everybody has a good time. I know that when I go to hear a performance, if it’s just song after song, it may be great, but I like the break and getting to know the performers—even if it’s not a description of the music exactly, just some kind of vocalization of what’s going on the stage.
AAJ: It makes the audience feel closer to the performer.
NH: Absolutely. And it comes naturally to me. I’m quite happy to pick up a microphone and just talk nonsense for awhile. There’s not much of that on the new record, sadly. There wasn’t the room for it. I quite enjoyed the liner notes on the first one, because I could do whatever I wanted. There was nobody telling me that there’s no place for this kind of nonsense on a CD jacket.
AAJ: The notes on the first record were a refreshing change from the serious, art-for-art’s-sake kind of stuff on most liners.
NH: I could have done that, but it didn’t really feel like me. I like to have a laugh at ourselves when we’re playing this music. We’re not changing the world. It’s jazz. We’re having a good time. You have to have a sense of humor about yourself and about your band mates and the type of music you’re playing. That’s kind of how I feel about it. I would feel strange to put out an album with deadly serious liner notes telling about how important that music was.
Consistency and Change
AAJ: On The Business, you’ve added Yotam Silberstein’s guitar on three tracks, and Art Hirahara plays electric piano on one track. Despite these changes in instrumentation, the band’s overall sound remains consistent and the record hangs together quite well as a whole. Even on a funky track like “Cold Spring Fever,” it still sounds like the Nick Hempton Band.
NH:That’s the best thing I could possibly hope for. I’m certainly glad you said that. I like to have a little bit of a change in there. The band is a quartet. Yotam has been part of the band from the beginning, at various times, especially if there’s the money for a quintet, or Art can’t make it. He’s always been part of the organization. I thought that dropping him in on three or four tracks would be a good idea, to just change things up a little bit. And with the electric piano, we’ve always done plenty of gigs where is no piano, which is never an ideal circumstance. So we kind of got used to this idea of the Rhodes sound in the band, and I wanted that sound on this record. And I wanted to have that with the guitar to sort of bring a whole new sound to the thing, but like you say, keeping the band together and a similar sound to the rest of it.
Do you remember a club in the East Village called Louis 649? The place is still there, but they don’t have music anymore. It was sort of an instrumental club for us. We used to play there every couple of weeks. It was a great club. No cover charge. The times we played, it was always packed. We did Friday nights there. The place had no piano, so we brought the keyboard along. I think that’s what really got the Rhodes sound into the band.
AAJ: Aside from your original compositions, you’ve chosen some tunes that aren’t often played by modern jazz musicians. Benny Carter’s “Lonely Woman” is on Nick Hempton Band. Don Redman’s “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” appears on The Business. The new record also includes a Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition that references Sidney Bechet, Don Byas and Fats Waller. Please explain your affinity for these songs.
NH: I’m really happy that I found the “Lonely Woman” tune on the first record. It’s such a great song. I learned it from Sarah Vaughan’s version. She did it in a session from the ’50s, withCannonball Adderley playing lead alto in a big band. It’s beautiful. She’s just heartbreaking. I learned it years ago, and we play it every now and again. When the first record came out, I was really into playing sad ballads—the most heartbreaking ballads I could find. The lyrics of the song are just devastating. I just had to try to get it down, and I’m glad I did because not many people play the song.
I’ve been listening to Roland Kirk forever. A teacher early on said that a lot of people overlook Roland Kirk. He wasn’t just some sort of novelty with the three horns and that kind of stuff—he was one of the best tenor players ever. And I realized that it’s true. Whatever horn he’s playing, it’s just beautiful lines. I started getting into his playing and composing. That track on the record is actually two tunes stuck together. It didn’t end up that way on the record cover; I think there wasn’t enough room to put that on there. Halfway through the tune, you’ll notice it speeds up, and it becomes a tune called “Rolando,” which is another Roland Kirk tune. I was glad to put something by him on there because not a lot of people play his tunes.
AAJ: The acceleration into the fast tempo works very well.
NH: We had a couple of gigs where that was not always the case— close to a train wreck. Fortunately, it worked quite well on the record.
The other one was “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.” It’s one of the tunes that often comes up with the traditional-style players, who I love. It’s a great old tune.
AAJ: You just used the phrase “traditional-style players.” It seems that the traditional players are a little more deliberate: storytellers with a narrative flow instead of cats just running licks. There is a lot of that in your playing, particularly the narrative flow aspect. It’s more like human speech, rather than someone simply trying to burn.
NH: I’m glad it sounds that way. I feel like that’s the way my playing is headed. Like I said, the Sonny Stitt style of alto playing is where I came from—and there’s a lot of running changes in that. I think I’m moving more and more away from that to just playing melodies.
There’s a lot more interplay between musicians in traditional styles. I find that in modern jazz there seems to be a lot of soloing and accompaniment. One guy is tearing it up and the others are supporting him. But in the traditional style of playing there’s always interplay between the horns—the front line—and the rhythm section. There’s real group improvisation. That’s what I love about it.