Artist Spotlight: Derek Nash - One of the Finest Award Winning Jazz Saxophonists
Derek Nash is one of finest award winning jazz saxophonists in the music business, he’s also a respected writer, arranger, record producer, recording engineer, band leader and runs his own Clowns Pocket recording studios. Oh, and he’s been in Jools Holland’s’ band for over 11 years, he’s the leader of Sax Appeal which is still gigging flat out after 35 years, as is his band Protect The Beat, he’s a member of Ronnie Scott’s Blues Explosion and is quite excited about his new album with Acoustic Quartet. Are we proud he uses a Fusion bag...you bet!
“I was gearing up to tell you about a new jazz album I’ve recorded with my band Acoustic Quartet, and I’ve just heard Jamie Cullum played the title track called ‘You’ve Got To Dig It To Dig It, You Dig’ on his evening radio programme, so that’s a nice start to the evening”, says Derek.
“Like the title implies the theme is acoustic jazz, we recorded without any electric instruments at all, using a piano, an acoustic drum kit amiss of any triggers, mics or pads, and an acoustic double bass and brass instruments.
When Acoustic Quartet perform live we’ll often play without a PA system. As you can imagine, an audience of 200 to 300 people are already focused and listening closely to hear every detail. It’s rather like the old music hall ambience where the audience can hear the natural sounds of the instruments.
Until electricity came along that’s how it was, the early jazz clubs were amiss of amplifiers or PA systems, when it did arrive, so did electric guitars and basses, it all got louder and the poor old brass player had to struggle to be heard. We couldn’t turn a knob up to get louder! You have to go back to an age when drummers, who were often the loudest on stage, but actually respected the volume of the instruments around them and were prepared to play at a volume where you didn’t need a PA system. I have to say our drummer Sebastiaan De Krom is fantastic within this field. We all have respect for each other as musicians and are sympathetic towards the acoustic volume and dynamics of the instruments on stage.
Anyone who buys Acoustic Quartet will know they’re not going to get the smooth funky stuff I also do or the rhythm and blues side of me, although I must admit on You’ve Got To Dig It, To Dig It, You Dig, it does creep in, you can’t do eleven years in Jools Holland’s band without a bit of boogie woogie rubbing off you. It works really well, and the tour book is pretty full throughout 2015 and well into 2016.”
So it wasn’t the familiar story of the red Fender Stratocaster guitar that inspired you to be a musician.
“Oh no”, he laughs, “Guitars just didn’t make mathematical sense to me when this all started at the age of 8 can you believe. I really admire guitar players now, but to me they seemed so complicated. My father Pat Nash was the arranger and conductor for the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra in Manchester for 35 years and without a doubt, this was the biggest influence I could ever have had at such an early age. I would go with him and stand in the middle of this band as they rehearsed. I was so enthralled with the sound, Syd Lawrence was on trumpet and Bernard Herrmann would sometimes let me conduct the band. I took it all in, and worked out what instruments I’d like to play. I figured drums were too big to carry and I was far too young to work out how important bass playing was. Trumpets looked like hard work, so I hung around the sax players and I thought I like this, it was at that time that they were recording the Pink Panther theme and I thought that’s for me.
I actually started playing it properly when I was 12, I had a few lessons with a classical teacher at school, and hung out with the players from the Northern Dance Orchestra, but after that I came from the school-of-life. I literally learnt as I went along and of course, my father taught me so much about composing, arranging, voicing the sax along the way. I would tag along with Dad’s own band and sit in and learn. The next step would have been to take it all to University. I did go, but I decided I would benefit from taking a course on acoustics, which I paid for by earning money playing the sax. This qualification eventually gave me another string to my bow, I joined the BBC as a sound engineer in London when I was 21 and started to enjoy some great gigs in the area whilst working in the studios.”
Over the years, you must have seen so many changes within recording and editing as technology moved on.
“I can’t believe how it’s all changed so dramatically,” says Derek. “One of my skills as a sound engineer was tape editing, splicing tape, who does that anymore? Hardly anyone records on a 1/4in reel to reel machine these days, it’s completely gone and just too expensive compared with digital technology. Where you would once spend half a million pounds on studio equipment, you can now spend a thousand and get software versions that almost do the same job on a laptop, but what you don’t get of course is the knowledge of how to use it, how it works and how to use a compressor, an expander or flanging properly. Thanks to the early days, those original techniques have come back into play for me; I completely understand editing digital software and hard discs here at my Clowns Pocket Recording Studios.
I have to laugh when I think back to the old days at some of the sound effects we created in the studios, for flanging I would put the palm of my hand on the flange of the tape reel, which is where it gets its name from.
I must say though, Jools Holland records his Rhythm and Blues Big Band in an old fashioned, but very effective way with everybody in the same room at the same time. The overspill into all the microphones just adds a little magic to the overall recording and it’s nice to record all together. This is a far cry to some of the albums I’m on around the world without having met the band. They’ll send me a track and I’ll add sax and email it back. It works, but I sometimes think you lose that natural empathy. I have several saxophones myself, and I love playing the old models, they are rather like old cars. I have so much respect for old saxophones; I have a gorgeous little soprano model that dates from 1929. They are rather like having a ride in an old luxurious car. A bit like a trip in one of Jools Holland’s old Bentleys for example”, he laughs. “It may not do 90 miles an hour, but the quality of the ride is superb.
When I record saxophone, I like to have a ribbon mike for the warmth and a condenser mike for the clarity. These are set at separate distances apart to capture the room environment, this actually creates a natural time delay, and if they are panned left and right you get the full width and ambience of the room, but that only works if you have a great sounding room.
I would say a saxophone is reasonably easy to understand the fingering, what is hard is to get a big, full, professional sound in tune. A saxophone is moderately easy to play very badly, even now I’m still working on my sound, after every show I think how could I have done that better. All professional musicians have this mind-set, when they get to the point where they can play everything and have their sound together, it’s time to retire.
There’s always something new to learn in this business, I’ve been reading Bruce Swedien’s biography, he was the sound engineer who recorded all the Michael Jackson material, and he would record everything in stereo to get the full spread. I find this book so interesting; it’s a bit of a full circle as he started out recording with Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Another longstanding British jazz band that Derek fronts is called Sax Appeal.
“Sax Appeal is an 8 piece band that features just about every style of sax playing, it’s been going for over 35 years now, and I actually started it when I was at school. I’ve used it as a vehicle for my arranging and composing and in ’98 we won the John Dankworth Award for Ensemble and in 2000 we were voted first in the British Jazz awards, I’m very proud of this band.
Over the years we’ve had so many players pass through the band; it’s a great opportunity to play classic songs by Duke Ellington and Count Basie for example, or we can be contemporary and play like Weather Report or Snarky Puppy, or even hardcore Latin material if need be. The sax line up for the big band days is two altos, two tenors and a baritone, I play a soprano on a lot of the gigs, but we can have two sopranos on some of the arrangements which completely changes the whole tone colour. Our baritone player is a woodwind specialist so we often get piccolos, flutes, clarinets and bass clarinets appearing.
Then it’s more of a question of myself taking on the arranging role, Sax Appeal parts can be in unison, or close harmonies, sometimes it’s all spread out and I’ll have to add keyboards to fill the sound or empty it right out to feature one instrument. It’s been a joyous experience to arrange and compose in so many styles.
Interview by Lars Mullen.
We would like to congratulate Derek Nash to the Nomination for the British Jazz Awards.
If you would like to vote for him, please do: http://www.instant.ly/s/PBBFC