Meditations on Music: Bryan Nichols Quintet

This concert was a calming and pensive way to end the reading period. From start to finish the music was relaxing, but with so much going on, it was also impossible not to get lost in my own thoughts on what the quintet was creating. The Minneapolis-based group took to the stage in Harper this past Sunday, May 7, thanks to organization from senior Matt Blair—who has brought in numerous jazz acts—help from senior Miles Allen and funding from Sinfonia. It is not only a privilege to see the musicians the Conservatory brings in, but also a whole different experience being able to see what contemporary music my friends are listening to by witnessing it live.

If you are a jazz student here, it is nearly impossible not to at least dip your toes into the busy Twin Cities scene, whether through their records or concerts, and this concert exposed the audience to some of the cities’ greatest. The quintet boasts a solid lineup: Nichols on piano, Mike Lewis and Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, James Buckley on bass and JT Bates on drums. I had seen Wozniak on the same stage in spring about two years ago in the fiery free jazz outfit Vector Families, and heard Lewis and Buckley on Bon Iver’s recent “22, A Million”—the former contributing to about the half the record. With the help of my friends, I have also begun familiarizing myself with the Minneapolis scene through many bands, including several of Dave King’s projects. Needless to say, I was not sure what to expect having heard this wide variety of music from such versatile players.

Despite the mystery, what I heard was exactly what I needed to hear that night. The show had moments of meditative playing, simple yet touching compositions and controlled cacophony. It was always concrete—so much so that I felt like I could reach out and touch it. The concert came at a perfect time for me; I was able to feel the music in my soul while also being able to just rest, sit there and take it all in. By the end, I not only felt like I had visited another world, but that I was more in tune with myself as a result. For the performance to be simultaneously grounding and otherworldly was impressive, and a refreshing experience.

A high point was near the middle of the set, during the tune “The Other End,” which can be found on their album, “Bright Places.” Focused around a foreboding but strangely calming ostinato, the piece also allowed for curious, explorative soprano soloing from Lewis. As Lewis grew wilder, Nichols altered the ostinato, Bates began playing a heavy beat, Buckley dug in and the vamp opened way up, the music expanding into another dimension. Riding this intensity, Wozniak joined in with a faint background until the piece simmered down into silence, the quintet moving as one.

Another aspect that shined throughout the show was how closely each musician’s approach to playing resembled other forms human expression. My favorite Wozniak solos were soulful and lyrical, sonically resembling sighs and singing, while highlights from Lewis’ playing were charged and often resembled laughter and fast speech. When the two came together—along with Nichol’s delicate phrasing, the smooth voice of Buckley’s bass and Bates’s sporadic textural gestures—a dense conversation full of twists and turns could be heard.

The set of Nichols-composed tunes was the perfect setting for this conversation. He writes verticality well; the harmonies the saxes had with each other never failed to have bittersweet tinges, and the looser, often spacey parts for the rhythm section complimented them well. A favorite aspect of mine was Nichols’s use of vamped figures. As mentioned before, it was used powerfully in “The Other End,” but also found its way to the forefront in a few other tunes. No matter when it was used, the music always moved forward with great purpose, relying on its unchanging or only slightly morphing figures to weigh it with emotion.

This concert was yet another lesson to take advantage of the resources we have here; it may seem unlikely to bring in an artist for a show, but it is more possible than you think. Support your local musicians and bring them to ol’ Larry U. And keep your eyes peeled for future shows from any of these expressive, personable musicians. Sunday was not the last you will hear from them.