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What does it mean to be from somewhere? On Looking North, pianist Bryan Nichols explores that question on ten songs that view his Minnesota home, music, and life as central to the musical story. “It's easy to frame all jazz music as a product of or reaction to the classic jazz of New York,” says Nichols. “But there was a time when regional music was the most important thing in improvised music; people came from Kansas City, or New Orleans, or Chicago, and they all sounded different.” Out May 27 on Shifting Paradigm Records, Looking North originates in a concept that is simultaneously new and old in jazz: this is regional music for a global audience.
Nichols grew up in Minneapolis, spent time in Iowa in college, and started his professional career in the thriving creative music scene of Chicago. “To make a personal musical statement, I think that has to take my surroundings into account. I'm a product of sounds and geography that is unique, and I hope this album sounds like me, but also sounds like a place that has trees and lakes and wide-open spaces. This isn't people-stacked-on-people music.”
The compositions are a varied exploration of Nichols' mind and playing, and take their inspiration from many sources. “We Build and Destroy” is an ode to his two sons, ages two and four. “The title sounds misleadingly dark perhaps, but it's really about the energy that kids can bring: simultaneously generative and destructive.” Both sons were born since the release of his debut album, the all-original quintet set Bright Places. “Now that things have settled down (a little) at home, it felt like a great time to get some new material into the world. Since the focus of Bright Places was on group interaction and improvisation, it felt natural to make an album purely focused on the piano.”
“Lake View” is nearly literal, evoking the many lakes near Nichols' Minneapolis home, while “Fractures” represents the same transient states that the Looking North's cover photo explores. “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,” explains Nichols. “We Live Here” is literal in title but spacious and explorative in nature, while “Act Natural” is virtuosic and subtly ironic. “Act Natural, like you know, you're playing modern jazz in odd time signatures,” laughs Nichols, “I love making honest music, but I love that the idea of honest, natural music making can take so many forms.”
Nichols chose his covers with the same care he composed the eight originals. “Lullaby for Sharks” is a song from the first Happy Apple album, by his friend and colleague Dave King of the Bad Plus. “That band and album were such a huge influence on me when I discovered jazz as a teenager, and in my discussions with Dave he's always been a proponent of the idea of strong, iconoclastic regional music. I knew I had to include this song.” says Nichols. “Lonesome Tremolo Blues,” by folk band The Pines, is a simple, beautiful song given an explosive performance. “Both of these songs spoke to me, and that they're by Minnesota artists who I call friends is an absolute bonus. We all make music that wears our midwestern roots, hopefully even authenticity, on its' sleeves, and I felt like this was such a nice way to round out the ten-song album,” Nichols concludes.
“Finders,” the final song on Looking North, may be the album's thesis statement. Nichols explains, “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.”