Loose ‘n’ Alive

November 16, 2018

Ted Nash might be one of the few people who was actually born ready to conquer the world musically. It would be hard not to be so poised for the spotlight when your uncle and namesake has already drawn a fair amount of attention – and an incredible legacy – to the family.

Now decades into his own career and after nabbing a shiny ol’ Grammy, Nash still isn’t afraid of living up to any expectations. If anything, he’s expanding his own reputation with philanthropic work, traveling as far as Brazil for music education. According to Nash, his next project is going to “change the world,” but more accurately, the saxophonist already has.

Read on to learn about his unintentional first live record in a quarter of a century, his old musical mentors, and getting students the tools they need, but can’t always afford.

You just released your first live recording in over 25 years, Live At Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. After so much time, what made you decide it was time to record another?

In the past several years most of my recordings have featured larger concepts, like Portrait in Seven ShadesChakra and Presidential Suite. These projects have provided a great opportunity to express my musical thoughts and feelings through larger ensembles. The focus was more on using the composition and arrangement to represent very specific ideas and themes, and less on improvisation. All of these were recorded in the studio, and were well-planned. When we played Dizzy’s last year, it was very loose and alive. The playing was very spontaneous. This album is the result of a night of stretching out with some of my favorite musicians. The focus was more on the improvisation and interaction rather than the composing and arranging. This is such an important part of what I love to do, and I am so happy to be able to share this side of myself with people.

How do you prepare for recording a live album and how is it different than planning for a studio album?

With this recording, it was only decided later to be released. Going into the gig I had not planned to put this out – I had not even thought about the fact that it would be documented. Fortunately, because of the live-stream and radio broadcast, the evening was captured. It was a bit later, after listening back, that I decided to release the album. Some of the greatest moments happen when there are no microphones around, but I was lucky that we recorded one of the evenings of this three-day gig. Matt, Rufus, Warren, and Gary all played so great!

Likewise, how did you select that album to be what follows your Grammy-award winning album, Presidential Suite? Does winning a Grammy for an album put any more pressure on you when it comes time to make the next one?

I don’t feel any pressure. I appreciate so much that Presidential Suite was recognized, but I don’t feel like the next record has to “surpass” the last. Anyway, that feels sort of subjective. I definitely don’t compose or play for awards. That would be a mistake. Actually, I measure my success in terms of how creative I can be, not how much money or notoriety I receive for it. The things I get excited about are deeply personal: the way something is expressed by a certain use of harmony, or how a counter-line might intersect the main thematic material. These are small details, but they are what make me happy. If I am trying to second-guess what people want or find important, I may never put anything out, or worse – put out something that isn’t honest. I go more with my intuition, and my gut told me to put out this live recording. And it feels good to share this side of myself with people. However, my next project is going to change the world…

You’re currently on staff at Juilliard, BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, and you’ve been teaching for over 30 years. When working with students, what do you see as the element of scholarshiop modern students need the most help with?

There are so many layers to teaching, and I love all of them. In the beginning we help young players develop tools, like technique, harmony, and sound – and help them find inspiration. Later, we help them use those tools to express something that is personal and meaningful – and help them continue to be inspired. For us to advance the art form and be relevant we need to first understand what came before us. Ten years ago, there was ten years less music that had been created. Obviously, it’s impossible to listen to everything, but the more we do, the deeper our own music can become. A lot of students ask, “How can I develop my style, find my sound?” You don’t set out to develop a style, it comes naturally out of the honest work you do.

Also, it’s important that when someone transcribes and plays solos by the greats – like Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, for example – it’s important to not only transcribe the notes, but also the spirituality behind what they are playing. Often, students will only copy the notes, but not the spiritual environment that is behind them. That’s why I encourage people to put on recordings of their favorite players and transcribe the environment they have created. If they play fast, play fast. If they growl, growl. If they leave space, leave space. If they play a tritone substitution, play a tritone substitution. This will train your instinct, as well as your knowledge and technique. It seems that helping students develop their instincts is a bit overlooked. Maybe because it’s not as clear and technical, and it seems many teachers focus more on technical aspects of music.

Do you have a mentor who helped you significantly when you were younger who you model your teaching after?

I had a teacher while I was in high school, Charlie Shoemake, who exposed me to the basic language by having me memorize solos by the masters, like Bird, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Hank Mobley, et cetera. I also learned basic harmony – chords and scales. His teaching was very clear and methodical. This was an important first step in being able to play. It gave me a strong base on which to add my own language later. Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam were the teachers at the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop when I took the class in the early ‘90s. This opened me up tremendously in terms of my writing and playing, as well. Brookmeyer was also the musical director of the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra when I first joined in 1982 and just being around him, experiencing his seriousness and dedication, and playing his new music was very inspiring. Bob also touched many other people who were in the band at the time, like Kenny Werner, Jim McNeely and Ed Neumeister, who have all gone on to be great composers.

You’ve also worked to help students who might not have the proper tools to learn, such as horns and mouthpieces. Do you see money as a stumbling block for many of your students? Do you have any plans to carry out similar initiatives in the future?

Having good equipment is really important. Many young players can’t afford top professional horns, or their parents don’t feel it’s a worthwhile investment. I do understand the reluctance of a parent spending $6,000 on an alto saxophone, not knowing if the child will go on to be a professional musician. Also, what often happens is that students will go from middle school to high school and have to leave behind the horns that were supplied to them by the school, which is why I started Project Pro Student Horn. I don’t want to see the hopes of these young musicians thwarted by unfortunate circumstance. I search for and find vintage instruments that are of professional quality and fix them up and sell them at one-tenth the cost of the big-name instruments. I mean, these are great horns – I use one myself. I have helped dozens of young musicians get professional saxophones into their hands. This is much better than the alternative for the same price, which is something often so badly made it will fall apart in a short amount of time, be out of tune or have an inferior sound. I can’t tell you how much this project means to me. I do not make any money doing this. For more information, visit http://tednash.com/outros/about-v2/

On a recent trip to Brazil, working with the EMESP program in Sao Paulo, I learned that the schools there purchase instruments the students play while in the program, but they have to buy their own mouthpieces (a sanitation rule). Maybe $75-$100 doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but to these kids – many whose families struggle to get food on the table – that is too much to spend. It was easy to see the need for better mouthpieces, so I set up a donation drive. I started with Beechler, whose mouthpieces I play, and they donated 30. Many musicians sent me stuff from their own collections. I was able to give this program several thousand dollars’ worth of mouthpieces and ligatures. I have to thank so many very generous people for this. They made a big difference in these students’ lives.

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