Friday, October 9, 2009

CD of the Day - "The Nice Guy Trio"

CD of the Day
"Here Comes The Nice Guy Trio" (PFR) 2009

Featuring: Darren Johnston (trumpet), Bob Reich (accordion) & Daniel Fabricant (bass), plus special guests Sameer Gutpa (tablas), Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Alex Kelly (cello), Dina Maccabee (violin), David Phillips (pedal steel guitar) and Aaron Keirbel (dumbek & assorted drums).
Besides many intriguing originals, the group offers unpredictable arrangements (with unusual instrumentaion) of Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" and Ornette Coleman's "Folk Tale."
Porto Franco Records to Release
"Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio"
November 17

CD debut by trumpeter Darren Johnston's new band, featuring Rob Reich (accordion) & Daniel Fabricant (bass).
CD Release Event at Yoshi's, San Francisco, Monday, November 2

Since his arrival in San Francisco in 1997, Ontario-born trumpeter Darren Johnston has become a vital part of the city's diverse musical landscape -- as composer, bandleader, and trumpeter. Johnston has collaborated with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Myra Melford, and Marcus Shelby; recorded under his own name and with the United Brassworkers Front; and been named one of Down Beat's "25 Trumpeters of the Future."

Johnston's newest ensemble, the Nice Guy Trio, was formed nearly two years ago with accordionist/composer Rob Reich and the versatile bassist Daniel Fabricant. The trio immediately became a force on the local scene and was honored with a SF Weekly Music Award for Best Jazz/Blues Band. Their yearlong residency (called "Root Exchange") at the Red Poppy Art House in the Mission District, featuring the trio with a revolving cast of stellar guest artists, resulted in the flowering of the distinctive Nice Guy concept and, eventually, the recording of their extraordinary first CD, "Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio." The new disc, produced by Johnston along with Reich and engineers John Finkbeiner and Myles Boisen, will be released November 17 by the new San Francisco label Porto Franco Records (distributed by City Hall).

"I have known Darren's music from seeing him perform with his quintet, and at some shows with local musicians like Kally Price, Meklit Hadero, and Marcus Shelby," says Porto Franco vice president Peter Varshavsky. "I love the stylistic variety between his projects. When we started Porto Franco, I was very anxious to work with him, and as it turned out, the Nice Guys' album was at that point almost complete. We are thrilled to be involved in promoting this great music."

The Nice Guys' sound, though steeped in jazz, embraces a wide array of styles, drawing from klezmer, blues, funk, calypso, country, Balkan, and Hindustani music. "We all have really broad taste and come from different musical backgrounds," says Johnston. "The trio is all about finding common ground. No matter what style we're coming from and referencing, we have our own way of playing together. We can go anywhere and still sound like us."

Originals from each of the trio members are performed on the new CD alongside compositions by Charles Mingus ("Fables of Faubus") and Ornette Coleman ("Folk Tale"). The Nice Guys' guest artists include clarinetist Ben Goldberg, tabla player Sameer Gupta, violinist Dina Maccabee, cellist Alex Kelly, pedal-steel guitar maestro David Phillips (who's featured on the Mingus track), and Aaron Kierbel on dumbek and assorted drums.

Voted a "Rising Star" on trumpet in the 2009 Down Beat Critics Poll, Johnston was also treated to the "Hot Box" multi-review format in that same August issue for his quintet recording The Edge of the Forest. The disc received four (out of five) stars from each of the four reviewers. John Corbett pronounced Johnston "someone to watch, on trumpet, of course, but as a composer and bandleader as well," while Paul de Barros admiringly wrote that "Johnston's all over the horn, smearing and sliding, but with crystal-clear ideas."

"Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio," likewise, is an auspicious debut by a group that bears watching -- and serious listening. Darren Johnston, Rob Reich, and Daniel Fabricant will feature the music of the new CD in a show at Yoshi's San Francisco on Monday, November 2. They'll be joined by guests Ben Goldberg, David Phillips, Sameer Gupta, with others to be announced.

Nice guys don’t tend to fare well in the American mythos, finishing last, losing the girl, and otherwise failing to compete in the hard-nosed free market. With its debut album "Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio," San Francisco’s stylistically omnivorous improvisational ensemble offers a clarion manifesto on the potency of congenial creativity.

Steeped in jazz, the Nice Guys embrace a wide array of styles, drawing from klezmer, blues, funk, calypso, country, Balkan, and Hindustani music. The protean combo effortlessly incorporates some of the finest improvisers on the multifarious San Francisco scene, creating playfully virtuosic music that references genres while existing outside of any particular style or tradition.

Founded in early 2008 by powerhouse trumpeter Darren Johnston, whose Canadian birth and upbringing allow him to claim nice guy status without irony, the group features accordion ace Rob Reich and well-traveled bassist Daniel Fabricant exploring a heady mix of original compositions and modern jazz classics by the likes of Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.

“We all have really broad taste and come from different musical backgrounds,” Johnston says. “The trio is all about finding common ground. No matter what style we’re coming from and referencing, we have our own way of playing together. We can go anywhere and still sound like us.”

A major force on the Bay Area creative music scene for the past decade, Johnston has collaborated with heavyweight improvisers such as guitarist Fred Frith, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, and bassist/composer Marcus Shelby. The album reflects his far-flung musical pursuits, as Nice Guys are joined on various tracks by a dazzling roster of guests, including clarinet legend Ben Goldberg, tabla expert Sameer Gupta, pedal-steel guitar maestro David Phillips, and versatile violinist Dina Maccabee.

The resulting music is strangely familiar, consistently beautiful, and brilliantly goofy. Phillips’s gently keening pedal-steel line turns the righteous indignation of Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus” into a vertiginous funhouse ride, while Gupta’s insistent tabla pulse propels Johnston’s “Off the Grid” into exquisitely uncharted Eastern territories. But it’s the trio’s ability to sustain a lively three-way instrumental conversation, with plenty of pauses, retorts, and discursive inquiries, that defines the group approach.

What’s fascinating about the Nice Guy Trio is how the disparate pieces all fit together so neatly. Reich honed his playing and compositional skills through his intensive study of klezmer and Balkan music. A multi-instrumentalist who also plays piano and guitar, Reich also performs regularly with the Gypsy jazz-influenced band Gaucho, the rock band The Trifles, the Golden Melody Band, and jazz/blues singer Kally Price, among many other combos. A highly lyrical player and gifted improviser, he recently released a startlingly compelling CD of solo accordion The Balancing Point.

“The accordion can be a full orchestra, and Rob is such an incredible musician I love to use the instrument’s lush sound,” Johnston says. “He’s also a really sweet cat, with amazing ears and wide open taste. He doesn’t have as much of a background in experimental music, but I trust him to make good decisions.”

Fabricant anchors the ensemble on bass with his buoyant tone and highly interactive approach. Before joining the trio he had worked primarily with cabaret stars like Andrea Marcovicci and Mary Wilson, singer-songwriters like Spencer Day, as well as in symphonic settings. Looking to expand his musical horizons, he became a Nice Guy, and has demonstrated a facility for navigating unfamiliar and challenging musical situations.

“One thing about Daniel’s playing is that he doesn’t stay in one place for very long,” Johnston says. “He’s constantly changing things up. In a lot of contexts that wouldn’t work as well, but for us it adds to the playfulness of the music. Rob follows him and I follow him, and we go back and forth all the time. He’s also a really good reader. I can throw new stuff at him and he’s always able to handle it.”

In many ways the Nice Guy Trio owes its existence to the Red Poppy Art House, a storefront performance space in the Mission District that’s become an essential creative catalyst for the San Francisco music scene. Johnston landed a yearlong residency in 2008, and the monthly engagement offered the trio a chance to prepare a set of music for a revolving cast of guests, providing a steady source of inspiration for composing and arranging. Word quickly spread that something special was happening in the Mission, and in a remarkably short period of time the Nice Guys captured the SF Weekly Music Award for the “Best Jazz/Blues Band.” The group has landed a steady stream of prestigious gigs, but it’s inextricably linked to the Red Poppy.

“It’s my favorite place to play,” Johnston says. “The room sounds great, and it’s such an intimate environment. Having to come up with new music every month for artists from different backgrounds was invaluable in helping us flex our versatility.”

Johnston has been demonstrating remarkable versatility ever since landing in the Bay Area in 1997. Born and raised in Ontario, he started playing trumpet at eight, and first turned onto jazz in high school when a copy of Miles Davis’s Nefertiti and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come fell into his hands. He earned a Bachelor’s in jazz performance at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and studied composition at Mills College in Oakland, where he earned a Master’s studying with experimental music pioneers Fred Frith, Chris Brown, Alvin Curran, Annie Gosfield, Joelle Leandre, and Maggie Payne.

Beyond gaining exposure to a broad range of compositional approaches from Brahms and Schoenberg to Pauline Oliveros, Johnston investigated an expansive palette of improvisational techniques at Mills, practices that have greatly improved his capabilities in straight-ahead jazz settings. His tremendous resourcefulness as an improviser, and his all-round nice guy reputation, led to an impressive web of creative alliances, from avant-garde masters like ROVA’s Larry Ochs and pianist Myra Melford to mainstream jazz experts like Marcus Shelby. Voted a “Rising Star” in the 2009 Down Beat Critics Poll, Johnston was also named one of “25 Trumpeters of the Future” by the magazine.

The trumpeter has made his biggest impact as a bandleader who has assembled a series of singular ensembles. He first gained widespread attention the United Brassworkers Front, an octet featuring two trumpets, two trombones, tuba/bass trombone, electric guitar, acoustic bass, and drums. On the band’s two CDs, most recently In Between Stories on Evander Music, the UBF weaves together a multiplicity of sounds, from Bach chorales, Mexican brass bands, and Angolan protest songs to “new music” and free jazz.

An essential member of the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, Johnston also works with Cylinder, an edgy improv ensemble featuring bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, saxophonist Aram Shelton, and drummer Kjell Nordeson. When opportunity allows he performs in the Transit Collective with Canadian jazz visionaries David Braid, Nick Fraser, Jon Maharaj, and San Francisco alto saxophonist Evan Francis. And the Darren Johnston Quintet, featuring clarinetist Ben Goldberg, reed master Sheldon Brown, bassist Devin Hoff, and drummer Smith Dobson V, recently released the critically acclaimed album The Edge of the Forest.

Johnston has received commissions to write for dance, most notably for the San Francisco company Robert Moses’s Kin, and for Amy Seiwert’s Im’ij-re, as well as through Intersection for the Arts’ “Jazz Commissioning Program,” and for the gaming company Electronic Arts. Always looking to explore new musical territory, he recently joined clarinetist Peter Jaques’ Balkan ensemble Brass Menazeri, a group with a wildly soulful repertoire of Serbian, Macedonian, Greek, and Romani tunes.

“It’s quite the learning curve,” Johnston says. “They don’t have charts for everything, and when they do, the music often doesn’t sound like what it looks like. It’s been taking me ten times longer to learn one phrase of this than it does to learn a phrase of bebop. I love it. It’s helped my trumpet playing and given me a lot of ideas. Turkish makam theory involves stacking chords on top of each other, and that’s gotten me thinking about new melodic possibilities for my own music.”

It’s all fuel for the combustible musical mix of the Nice Guy Trio, a group that blissfully ignores borders and boundaries that can thwart artists with territorial concerns. Judging by the trio’s debut album, when it comes to making global music Nice Guys finish first. •

"Here Comes the Nice Guy Trio" (Porto Franco Records)
Street Date: November 17, 2009,

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