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Clovis Nicolas: Nine Stories

cover art to Clovis Nicolas's CD Nine Stories

Clovis Nicolas doesn’t want you to hear what he’s thinking.

“I like tonality, melody and harmony - things beautiful in their simplicity,” says the bassist about the songs on Nine Stories, his debut album as a leader. “I put in a lot of energy and work, but in ways I hope the listener will never realize.”

Putting the listener first is a hallmark of Nicolas’s confident yet understated playing, and one of the valuable lessons he learned from Ron Carter, one of his mentors at the Juilliard School of Music.

“Ron is always thinking, but that’s not what you hear,” says Nicolas. “You hear the pleasure of a good, swinging bass line. The thought is there, just to make the music better.”

Jazz has drawn Nicolas like a magnet since his youth. Born in Ivory Coast, where his French father worked as an agronomist, he grew up in Aix-en-Provence, and at age fifteen he stumbled upon a biography of Charlie Parker. He began to listen to and play jazz, and within a year he was hooked.

“I knew I wanted to make music, but my parents weren’t ready to accept it,” he says, so he studied philosophy at university instead. He kept playing, and in 2002 struck out for New York, where he played at Smalls jam sessions nearly every night for two years, then enrolled at Juilliard.

“I learned jazz on my own - playing with others, and learning solos from records by Paul Chambers and Ron Carter,” he says. “To then study with one of these masters was a dream come true.”

At Juilliard, he discovered counterpoint and his abilities to write and arrange the harmonically rich, open-hearted compositions found on Nine Stories.

“At least for me, it’s easier to find pleasure and joy when the harmony doesn’t weigh you down,” he says. “It’s like a story you understand the first time you read it.”

“Pisces,” which opens the disc, is an upbeat number which celebrates the arrival of spring around the time of Nicolas’s birthday on March 13.

 “It’s a moment when life strikes back – trees understand that it’s about to get alive again, and the birds too, so for me it’s something creative and fiery,” he says.

The arrangement of Kenny Dorham’s “None Shall Wander” draws out the melodic instincts of guitarist Alex Wintz an saxophonist Luca Stoll.

“I wanted to give straight-ahead players a chance to play more modern, and vice versa,” says Nicolas.

“Mothers and Fathers,” an homage to the lyrical side of the American Songbook, features pianist Tadataka Unno and trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, and was originally written in a big band arrangement, for Nicolas’s grandmother.

“Almost every note has a harmony, which gives it warmth and ground,” says Nicolas.“I had a Duke Ellington sound in mind, along with the bridge to Duke Pearson’s ‘You Know I Care.’”

“Tom’s Number” is an imaginative homage to trumpeter, pianist and composer Tom Harrell, which features Nicolas’s mastery of counterpoint.

“I always try to go and hear Tom play,” says Nicolas. “He’s a great, great composer and also a great soloist; it seems his melodies are always well thought-out.”

Sonny Rollins’ “The Bridge” is an ode to one of Nicolas’s favorite landmarks in his adopted city.

“I would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, sometimes at day and sometimes at night, and it would always blow my mind,” he says. “The song has some of the dissonance, the energy of the city.”

The album closes with two standards – an ensemble version of “You, The Night And The Music,” and “Sweet Lorraine” as a duo with guitarist Alex Wentz.

Throughout, the album’s arrangements are delicately balanced in ways that cast Nicolas’s own lyrical instincts, and those of the ensemble, into high relief.

“There’s nothing worse than when you feel that musicians are only playing for each other,” says Nicolas. “Every song has a story, but I’d rather have people relate them to their own.”

The group will celebrate the release of Nine Stories, out March 18 on Sunnyside Records, March 30 at Smalls in New York.

 - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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