The Fall 2014 Nashville Fringe Festival Sampler features contributions from Al-D, Chris West, the Coolin’ System, E.T., Greg Bryant Expansion, Hide Your Mamas, Justin Kalk Orchestra, Markey Blue, and Quiet Entertainer. Listen below, or download the entire sampler by clicking here to sign up for the Nashville Fringe Festival’s newsletter.
(Downtown Nashville skyline image courtesy of Giovanni Rodriguez.)
Born in Nashville, Greg Bryant dabbled with piano in his youth, but was primarily introduced to music by immersing himself in his parents’ record collection. “My education has been [through] listening to a lot of records,” he says, reflecting on those early years via email. “And, I mean a lot of them.” In his teens, Bryant began sharing his love of music with others, taking on his first radio position at age 15 where he began working with a local college station. “Turning people on to the great masters of the music is a special responsibility I feel I’ve been given,” he says. “So doing broadcasts and getting involved with radio was a natural step.” Transitioning into the role of player a few years later (when he picked up the bass while attending MTSU), Bryant’s relationship with music — and particularly jazz — has since become layered, landing him at the intersection between musician and champion.
“[A]s I was around the music more and more,” he continues, “it forced me to want — or created the need — to participate and make music.” The Human Sound and the Cornerstone Jazz Trio marked his first attempts at playing with bands while still in college, each allowing him to gain perspective as a player while he continued to pursue broadcasting. “We investigated a lot of the classic jazz repertoire,” he says of those early groups, “but not always in the classic way.” After graduating he relocated to Chicago to pursue his studies, a move that would impact his relationship with music for years to come.
“Strangely enough,” says Bryant, “aside from a few jam sessions, I didn’t play much in Chicago.” The larger city did give him more opportunities to see and hear influential jazz musicians in the live setting, however, which further solidified within him an urge to not only continue investing himself in the genre, but hone his own sound. An internship in Washington, D.C. followed, which only further ingrained within Bryant a new direction which he would take his music. “The players were way better [than] I was and played with more fire than I had been accustomed to,” he says, relating the period to something of a musical baptism. “The way the drummers swing on the east coast continues to be intense and playing with that rhythm changed me.”
After briefly returning to Chicago, Bryant headed back south in 2004, where he transitioned his new experiences back into performing and broadcasting. He later took on a position with Middle Tennessee Public Radio — then branded JAZZ 89 — while quickly re-establishing himself musically by opening up shop with a pair of new groups in Nashville. The Greg Bryant Quintet was formed with saxophonists Reagan Mitchell and Chris West, guitarist Brian Mesko, and drummer Jason Hoffheins, while Concurrence took form as an improv duo, featuring Bryant alongside pianist Paul Horton. While on one hand the Quintet allowed for a blend between new compositions and covers, Concurrence presented itself as a way to experiment more with sound. “Paul is my musical soul mate,” says Bryant. “We can just show up on the stage and start playing. No tunes or anything. And it will end up in places that inspire us both.”
While Concurrence remains a part-time project, and he has performed, recorded, and toured with numerous other acts since, following the dissolution of the Quintet, Bryant began forming ideas for what would eventually take form as the shapeshifting Greg Bryant Expansion in 2008. “I like to groove as well as swing — and while I don’t like the connotations of ‘jam band’ either — I wanted to make music and play before a diverse audience, definitely including younger folks and people in my generation.” The new group has seen a revolving roster of players, with the consistent being a soft musical focus, allowing for “[improv] and groove as well as swing.” Last year the Expansion released its debut EP, featuring six songs recorded live-to-tape, as performed by Bryant, James DaSilva, Paul Horton, and Joshua Hunt. The Equal Ground blog called the set a product of “incredibly talented musicians flexing their muscles for six songs showing you guitar, bass, piano and drum work people will be in awe of.”
While his radio broadcasting days are now behind him, Bryant continues to represent the scene via the digital airwaves, as in 2013 he resurrected his “Watchman” moniker when he founded the JazzWatch Podcast. And not unlike his position as a jazz advocate, Greg Bryant’s role as a musician continues to evolve and expand. “Simply put — music is about vibrations,” he says, “and to allow them to pass through you creatively and instinctively is a big responsibility. It’s not a job, but more like a calling or a mission.”
The Greg Bryant Expansion will be performing Saturday, July 5 at the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s Art Crawl (5th Avenue North at The Arcade in front of The Arts Company, 6:00 – 9:00 pm). Click here to read the Fringe’s extended Q&A with the bassist.
“I wanted to play the saxophone, and had for as long as I can remember,” explains Chris West. Despite starting his musical journey with the trumpet in elementary school, “saxophone has always felt very natural to me,” he says. While always returning to his weapon of choice, West has always tilted toward establishing a broad musical foundation for himself; in the late-’90s he took up study of flute and clarinet at Belmont before seeking a masters in Jazz Studies, and later teaching at Western Kentucky University. Not bad for a sax-man.
Since 1998 when his song “Dreams” was nominated for a Nashville Music Award (NAMMY), West has also gained a reputation as a highly regarded live player — having performed and toured with acts ranging from Johnny Reid, Brenda Lee, the Dynamites, My Morning Jacket, and Brian Setzer — while simultaneously solidifying himself as a cornerstone of Nashville’s music scene through roles with the Guy Smiley Blues Exchange, Halfbrass, and the JunkYard Horns. While much acclaim for the player stems from his artistic dexterity as a live performer, it’s his ability to craft and hone music within the recording arena is something he has become increasingly fond of; a focus that perhaps dates back to the early influence of a key mentor.
After joining a jazz band program in his school, West decided to take lessons, “and that’s when I met Jeff Coffin.” A three-time Grammy Award winner who’s performed, toured, and recorded with numerous high-profile the likes of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, the Dave Matthews Band, and Umphrey’s McGhee, Coffin’s guidance introduced him to new concepts in and outside the realm of musical theory. “Jeff had a way of incorporating life lessons with music, in ways that helped me develop my approach to playing, and my musical concept/approach all together (not to mention, it helped me develop as a person).” In 2006 those lessons manifested in West’s debut album, Jazzmanic.
“I think my evolution as a player/musician in that time was based on a combination of my practice, schooling, and life experiences. I was lucky to get to study with Don Aliquo at MTSU as a grad student, and I really felt I took it to the next level, so to speak, as a player. I feel that Don really helped me to learn to enjoy practicing. Up until that point, it was something I just had to do to get better.” While he began writing the music that would land on his Surprise Trilogy back in college, the three albums he released in 2011 solidified West’s place as one of Nashville’s most promising young jazz players. The Nashville Scene praised the series through multiple articles that year, calling the Trilogy “a gumbo of top-notch jazz, blues and greasy New Orleans funk seasoned with a sprinkle of sly musical humor,” while adding that “West is establishing himself as one of the area’s top jazz artists.”
Much of West’s musical focus these days is split between the JunkYard Horns (“a 12 piece funk/jazz ensemble fronted by a 7 piece horn section“) and Halfbrass, which “mixes traditional brass band music with funk, jazz and rock.” “I think the main difference is that Halfbrass for me has boundaries,” he says. “When we create new music, we try to keep in within the style of New Orleans brass band (both traditional, or modern), but at the same time, making it unique with our sound. When I write for the JunkYard Horns, I don’t try to stay within any boundaries as far as melody and harmony. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fit into any category, so to speak, but I just write with no restrictions, so what comes out is my natural sound.”
With three years now standing between him and the release of his Trilogy, West has returned to the studio where he looks to once again challenge his range. “I have a couple of albums in the works,” he says. “I am about to finish up an experimental big band album, hopefully I’ll be releasing it towards the end of the year, and I’m also in the pre-production stages of a JunkYard Horns album, and possibly DVD.” When asked where he finds the most satisfaction, in the studio or on the stage, West says he’s finding more and more fulfillment from the compositional element of recording. “I love recording albums,” he continues. “And that’s something that I feel I will always do.”
The March 10 edition of the Fringe Radio Show with Al-D features Swap Meet Symphony bassist Bruce Ervin as well as Chris West of the Junkyard Horns and Half Brass, both sitting in as in-studio guests for the show. The JunkYard Horns will be playing at the Building Wednesday, March 19.
What do you get when you cross South Park, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, King of the Hill and The Ricky Gervais Show? Frankly, I’m not sure either, but you can see it for yourself at the latest installment of angel of the arts Jan Bossing’s Nashville Fringe Festival. That’s when saxophonist Chris West and his criminally funky JunkYard Horns will debut a new cartoon — starring none other than themselves, along with a cast of fictional characters — during their performance at The Building in East Nashville. We’ve raved about the JunkYard Horns in these pages before, and for good reason: With seven of Nashville’s best horn players backed by one of the nastiest rhythm sections this side of Jupiter, they could peel the gold leaf off the Athena statue in Centennial Park. In fact, according to cartoon character Kyle Goldstein, they even made his scrotum bleed a bit. We always thought of The JunkYard Horns as an animated band, but this takes it to a new level. (In a related development, bassist Jerry Navarro’s bitchin’ ’fro finally gets the cinematic treatment it deserves!)