John Nastos Interview

I thought that it would be an interesting to do an interview with a younger player for a change. The younger generation are the future of Jazz after all.

One of the most talented and promising young players to come out of (and back to) the Northwest recently is saxophonist and band leader John Nastos. I always enjoy playing music with fiery younger players like Nastos because it gives me a run for my money, and it also gives me fresh perspective on my own playing.

John doesn't sound like a your typical cookie-cutter clone that many of the Jazz conservatories seem to be churning out by the thousands every year. His influences seem to be different than some of the other young prodigies that I've heard recently. Maybe his composing has made him a more thoughtful improviser also. He also seems to have a tendency to search for a personal and unique voice on the saxophone.

I'm looking forward to hearing what John comes up with musically once he has time to settle in back here in the Northwest. It should prove to be quite interesting.

DCV: So you recently moved back to Portland after graduating from Manhattan School of Music. How was your experience studying in NYC?

JN: My experience in NYC was generally good. I was fortunate to be able to attend my top-choice school with a generous scholarship. During my time there, I got the chance to study with a ton of great players, including Bob Mintzer, Dick Oatts , John Riley, and more. The three guys that I mentioned specifically each had a big influence on my playing, especially in opening up my ears and mind to new concepts and ideas that I hadn't been introduced to before I left for New York.

What turned out to be
more valuable than the classroom instruction, though, was playing every day with my classmates. There were students from all over the world, each bringing different influences to the table. All of us were trying to simultaneously learn the material from the school's curriculum and incorporate what we were hearing from the cutting-edge players in the NYC club scene. Because everyone was trying out these new ideas and styles all the time, I was forced to start to expand my palette pretty quickly.

As great as that learning experience was, it didn't take me very long to fig
ure out that there are a lot of things I dislike about New York as a city. I decided that I'd much rather live someplace that has trees, quiet, affordable living, etc. Coming back to Portland seemed like a perfect choice, since I knew that I could have lots of opportunities to play music with players I love, while still having a good (and balanced) quality of life outside of the music scene.

DCV: How did the experience change your musical concept?

JN: As I touched on before, all of the students at the school were trying to absorb as much as they could and expand in new ways. For me, this meant playing catch-u
p at first on some things that I hadn't been exposed to much before I left Portland. In particular, playing in odd meters is nothing unusual in New York, so getting my legs in 5 and 7 became an important first task. Also, there's a different harmonic approach to a lot of modern jazz that I hadn't explored, having played mostly bebop before I left.

But, those things are really just mechanics. In broader terms, I think my concept of music became more melody-driven. Instead of playing licks, I tried to focus on improvising melodies. That was one of the first concepts that I worked on with Oatts. By the time I started studying with Mintzer a year and a half later, that was the first thing that he mentioned that I should work on. So, it's obviously been a slow process. I've made progress, but it's still one of the most important things to work on in my practice.

DCV: Bob Mover tol
d me that he thought that Jazz schools weren’t requiring students to spend as much time studying the older masters as they did in previous years because the younger players were much more interested in modern players. Do you agree with this assessment?

JN: Well, I can't really speak to what jazz schools used to be like, since I'm pretty young and have only had experience at MSM. What I can say is that there's thirty more ye
ars of jazz to study than there was in the late seventies and a degree still takes the same time to acquire. I don't think anyone is saying the masters have become less important, but the amount of material you have to cover to get a complete education keeps growing, so it's inevitable that things are going to get compressed. That is, unless you decide to ignore a certain time period, which is a bad idea whether it's the modern stuff or the classics.

DCV: How are your peers that stayed in NYC doing career wise? Do you think that many of them are supporting themselves playing Jazz?

JN: It varies a lot – some guys seemed to start getting lots of work right away. Others will probably be doing non-music jobs for a long time to pay off student loans. I wish everyone I went to school with the best of luck, but I know that not all of us will manage to have our ideal careers.

DCV: What about yourself, in the last few years I’ve seen club after club close down here in Portland, are you working enough to keep afloat?

JN: I am working a fair amount at the moment and I've been very fortunate that the work I've been doing has been with some fantastic players. You're right, there have been some closures lately, but there are new places coming up as well as burgeoning neighborhoods like Alberta St. and Mississippi that I think hold promise. The next step for me is working on getting more private students, which is something I've had on the back burner while preparing for some of the concerts I've done lately.

DCV: Tell me about what you’re working on lately and what is a typical practice session for you like?

JN: For the last few yea
rs, I've been pretty bad about getting a regular routine together. When I was in school, my practicing was often dominated by what the curriculum was focused on at any given time. And, there was so much material that every time I had a break, I was going back trying to internalize the new concepts I had just begun to master during the classes or lessons. In fact, I still have a ton of stuff on my to-do list that I learned superficially in school but never had enough time to really shed.

Now that I'm out of school, I find that I'm usually practicing for an upcoming event of some sort. Sometimes that means shedding a bunch of some one else's music and sometimes that means getting to work on my own stuff.

Recently, when I've had time to pick and choose, I've been working on taking tunes through all 12 keys. This is always an i
mportant exercise for the obvious reasons, but it's also a good way for me to spend lots of time with my tenor, which I've been trying to focus on lately.

I've also been spending a lot of time writing. There are quite a few tunes in the books for my various groups that I've been playing for a few years and even though I'm not tired of the old music yet, I'm ready to add a new batch of tunes to the repertoire.

DCV: Can you talk about your creative process for composing?

JN: I do 99% of my writing on the piano. It's usually the last step for me to try it on the horn to see if it fits correctly and is comfortable, or if it needs to be transposed or something. When I'm at the piano, I have a couple of different approaches. If I'm really lucky, I'll have the piece in my head already, and I just need to figure out how to voice it properly, make edits, and things like that. Other times, though, I use more of a mechanical approach. For example, I may have a new harmonic idea or chord progression that I want to try out, so I try to make a piece that incorporates these ideas. The problem with that strategy is that the majority of the pieces end up sounding too artificial – like they're an exercise or something – so I never end up performing most of them. The benefit to writing them, though, is that the concept I'm working on gets into my ear so that next time I have a more natural inspiration, I have another tool to use to express what I'm hearing.

DCV: Who are you listening to lately?

JN: In the past couple of days, I've been checking out Alan Jones's new CD with Darrell Grant, Phil Dwyer, and Tom Wakeling. I'm guessing that CD will spend a lot of time in my CD player in the next few months. Before that, I had been listening to a lot of Jan Garbarek. He's produced an incredible body of work over a number of decades and has a completely original sound. Also, he plays more melodically than just about anyone. In the long term, I've spent the last few years checking out a whole bunch of Oregon (the band, not the state) records. Ralph Towner's writing has been one of the biggest influences on my own work. His writing has lots of harmonic depth but still is focused on beautiful melodies.

DCV: Ralph’s incredible, but that stuff seems pretty far outside the realm of Bebop where you started out. Have you always been interested in Jazz-fusion and Thi
rd-stream music?

JN: Yes, I have been. I
was always listening to more of that stuff, even if the only playing I was doing was bebop. Back when I was starting out and hadn't tried my hand at playing newer and more modern music, I think I didn't even have an appreciation for how different the skill sets are for playing different types of jazz. I figured that the skills I was learning to play over bop changes would translate to playing other sub-genres, but when I started to actually play it, I realized that not only should I be working on the bebop vocabulary, but techniques for lots of other styles as well.

DCV: You mentioned that you’re into Jan Garbarek, because he’s pretty much the exact opposite of the Bop approach of playing.

JN: I think you hit an interesting point – 13/8 seems like a stretch to a lot of people right now, but so did bebop at one point. Odd-meters like 13/8 are being played in different types of music all over the world and that sort of thing is just starting to work its way into the jazz genre. So, obviously when people are trying to play concepts like that, it's not unreasonable or unattainable, it's just a stretch from what we're used to.

If musicians want audiences listening to their craft, I think it's the artist's responsibility to find a way to integrate the new concepts in a way that is somewhat approachable for the listener. Sometimes that fails and
sometimes it works to great effect, like Binney and Chris Potter have experienced.

Jan Garbarek, in a sense, has also gone through that process, albeit in a differ
ent way. If you check out his really early recordings, he plays in very Coltrane-esque sort of way – sheets of sound, dense harmony, etc. Now, he plays very melodic, almost simple music. But, he's approached it in a way that (at least some) jazz fans identify with. I should mention that I love both periods of his playing.

DV: My Swedish house-
mate in Boston used to refer to Jan's style as 'suicide music', because of it's lonely, wailing quality. I also happen love Jan's playing. There was one album in particular that he did with John Laughlin and some Hindustani musicians, I listened to that CD so many times and never got sick of it. Tell about your setup, are you happy with it?

JN: On alto and soprano, I use Meyer mouthpieces (an 8 and a 7 respectively), with Rico Royal 3 reeds. I love those mouthpieces and reeds and have rarely had issues or complaints. This is good, because I'm not really an equipment guy – that's the last thing I want to have to think about. On tenor, I've had more of an uphill battle, which explains why I've spent less time playing it. I just wasn't interested unless the mouthpiece/reed thing was figured out. Luckily, a local guy (Patrick Springer) just made a mouthpiece for me that I've really been enjoying. Instead of dreading the tenor, I've been spending most of my time with it.

DV: Ideally, where do you do see your music career in ten years?

JN: To put it simply, I'd like to be playing with players that I respect and enjoy playing with, and teaching students who have a desire to learn. I don't care too much about what form either of those come in – whether I'm playing clubs or concert halls, teaching highschoolers or college students, I'm not picky.

DCV: What about your playing itself, what sort of player would you like to be a decade from now?

JN: I'd like to try to break down more of my technique and ear-related inhibitions. I think if I can get my ear-training in better shape, I'll be a better true improviser. And then I'll need better technique to execute what I'm hearing in my mind's ear.

DCV: What direction do you think your peers will take and how will that affect Jazz in the next few decades?

JN: I think that younger players will continue to add more and more 'cerebral' techniques to the music, meaning more complicated meters and rhythms, more dense harmony, etc. The challenge will be to keep the music listenable.

DCV: That seems to be a problem that many younger players suffer from, music that is too complex and too cerebral. How can anyone just relax and let loose in 13/8? It seems ironic that everyone first thought that Be-Bop was incredibly complicated. Imagine if Chris Potter, DaveBinney, or Vijay Ayer were on to the 52nd street scene in the early 50’s. There would have been an angry mob with torches and pitchforks every time they played.

JN: Also, I think there's an inevitable change that's going to happen r
egarding 'standards.' If we're talking about a few decades, the people who grew up with the American Songbook as the popular songs of their generation will all have passed away. I don't know what the effect will be, but I imagine that this has to have some impact on the common repertoire of jazz.

DCV: Yeah, pretty soon they’ll be playing “Can’t Touch This” at senior dances. Tell me about the musical projects that you’re involved with right now. Do have a CD in the works?

JN: For the past few years I've led two different bands.

E4 is my electric quartet, with Clay Giberson, Damian Erskine, and Drew Shoals. One of my inspirations for that group was Joshua Redman's Elastic Band – a more modern fusion sound, incorporating lots of funk and pop sounds. That band also gives me the chance to experiment with effects on the saxophone and the EWI (electric wind instrument).

I've also had an acoustic band which has gone through quite a few changes over the years. The most recent version of that band played at the '08 Portland Jazz Festival
at the Old Church. I was lucky enough to have Dave Captein on bass, Alan Jones and Drew Shoals trading off the drum chair, and my friend Sam Harris from New York on piano. I also persuaded Shelly Rudolph (with whom I've enjoyed playing recently) to sing a couple of my arrangements.

I've been thinking about a CD for a long time, but I haven't decided on what band I want to use, which tunes to record, and any number of other questions associated with the process. I think it's especially hard, since whatever it turns out to be will be my first CD as a leader and I want it to be the best first effort that I can manage. In the meantime, I've been trying to get in the habit of posting live recordings on my blog: blog.johnnastos.com

DCV: You’ve been hosting a nice website about the Portland Jazz scene for several months, what inspired you to start doing that?

JN: I've been running JazzPDX.org since June – it started because at the time there weren't any (functioning) websites that were dedicated to jazz in Portland. The Jazz Society of Oregon had been neglecting their site for a few months, so I decided to start my own project. So many times I've told people about a show I've seen and heard that they would have loved to be there too if only they had known about it. I figure if my site prevents that from happening as much, then it's worth it. Recently, I've also decided that I want it to be more interactive, so I'm starting a series of “community discussion” questions. The most recent one had people talking about their thoughts on the 2008 Portland Jazz Festival.

DCV: Everyone I talk to seems to think that the Jazz scene here will come back around. They always say that the scene moves in cycles and that more Jazz clubs will open again. I may be a pessimist but I only see a steady decline in the number of Jazz clubs in the last decade, for that matter the last two decades. Are you optimistic that the downward cycle will turn around again?

JN: I am optimistic. Right now, you can still find jazz in quite a few places in Portland every day of the week – Jimmy Mak's, Wilf's, the Benson and Heathman Hotels, etc. There are also some great places that have monthly or weekly events, like the Hollywood Music Center, Zaytoon on Alberta, and Design Counsel (where Diatic Records does their concert series). Even better news - I know of at least one new jazz club opening in May. I think the fact that there is so much jazz education right now means that there will continue to be audiences. The kids that are involved in high-school jazz programs won't all grow up to be pros, but it's pretty likely that they'll continue to be jazz fans and patrons.

DCV: It's a good thing that you're so optimistic. As for me, I'm starting to make my contingency plans to move back to NYC in case the scene gets any worse here. Thanks a lot John.

John Nastos' Web Page

John Natsos' Sounds

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