Alto saxophonist Nick Hempton‘s third album, Odd Man Out, is in stores tomorrow. (It’s been available digitally since July 30; get it on iTunes.) Originally from Australia, he’s been a New York resident since 2004, and working with a steady band since shortly thereafter. Pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Dan Aran have played on all three albums—the group’s self-titled (and self-released) 2009 debut, 2011’s The Business, and Odd Man Out, both on Posi-Tone. The latter two albums have also featured guests: guitarist Yotam Silberstein on The Business, and trombonist Michael Dease on Odd Man Out.
Hempton’s music combines bop classicism with a sense of wit and fun, both in its sound and the track titles he picks (“I’m a Nurse, I’m an Engineer”; “Press One for Bupkis”; “Not Here for a Haircut”). Live, he’s a charming raconteur, never dumbing down the music but always keenly aware that he’s an entertainer and that his audience is there for a show, not a recital. His playing is melodic and bluesy, but light on its feet; he seems to hope dancing will break out, and perform accordingly.
Odd Man Out (buy it from Amazon) is a more exploratory album than either of its two predecessors. It features nine original compositions and two covers—Duke Ellington‘s “Day Dream” and Randy Newman‘s “Blue Shadows,” from the movie The Three Amigos. And while most of the tracks focus on blues and swing, there’s a turn toward weirdness on “A Bicycle Accident,” which explores space and abstraction in a way that’s avant-garde without being alienating.
Stream “The Set-Up”:
Hempton and band will be celebrating Odd Man Out‘s release at Smalls on Saturday, August 17 from 7:30 to 10 PM. I spoke to him in late July about Odd Man Out, working on cruise ships, and more.
Odd Man Out covers a wider range of moods and styles than The Business. What were your creative or artistic goals going into the session?
Band-wise and performance-wise, I don’t think anything’s particularly changed. The nature of the music and the compositions may be slightly different, but it’s not really out of the realm of what we’ve been doing, it’s just that compositionally, things went in a different direction than they have in the past. I think it has more of a theme, this album, than in the past. There were a couple of things that we attacked in the studio slightly differently to the way we’ve done in the past. There was a tune that really had no form or chart, and I kind of explained it as we went, which is new—for this band, anyway.
You’ve got a guest trombonist, Michael Dease, on several tracks. Have you worked with him before, and what did you think he brought to the record?
Michael Dease is somebody—I like to have a few people around us who I like to think of as sort of part of the organization. We had Yotam Silberstein playing guitar on the last record, and we have a few other instrumentalists who I like to bring in as guests on certain gigs. When there’s a little extra bread, or an extra set, and I can bring in guests, these are people I feel like are part of the family. And Mike Dease is somebody I’ve been wanting to play with for a long time, cause he’s an amazing trombonist. And he did a few gigs with us, and they were going really well, and I just heard…the trombone-alto combination is something that’s always struck me. It’s a great combination of timbres. So I had that idea in mind, and it kind of suited the mysterious feel that I was going for with this record.
I know [Posi-Tone Records head] Marc Free a little bit, and last year he told me a story about this session—that you were going to record a standard, and he said to you, “Why are you giving away publishing money? Go sit down and write a blues or something.”
[laughs] Well, I’m glad to hear that was Marc’s idea. Yeah, he and I had a meeting in the hallway. He said “We need something else,” and that’s what we came up with. He’s right, it is nice to keep your publishing rights, but it’s certainly not a factor in any decisions in the studio, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, we just play the best tune that we can. But if we’re gonna play a blues, and it’s not something that we’ve planned ahead, I may as well just write one. So I did wander around the kitchen in the studio and came up with this blues, and it turned out OK, I think.
There are a couple of tracks here, that would open each side if it was an LP—“Nice Crackle” and “Fifth Floor Run-Up”—that sound like they could be themes for 1950s late-night talk shows.
So tell me about those pieces and how they came together.
It’s funny that you brought up those two, because they’re not the ones that I think are showing off the theme of the record particularly, but they are ones that I wrote early on, when we were putting the album together. And “Nice Crackle” is something that I’ve been trying to do with combining different time signatures but making it not sound that way. There’s bars in seven and bars in four next to each other, and I just liked the idea of doing that without it sounding like we were trying to be tricky. It’s got a good energy, and I think the line over those alternating time signatures sounds logical. It was kind of an experiment, to see if we could make that happen. And “Fifth Floor Run-Up” is kind of a strange tune—it’s a really modern form, with different sections, and I hear what you mean about TV show themes; I hadn’t actually thought about that, but I can see that that would work. I guess that era is kind of what we’re going for on the whole record—like, film noir or TV detective shows, so that kind of fits in with the record, I think.
You were mentioning that one piece was improvised—I’m guessing that was “A Bicycle Accident”? That’s a pretty abstract piece, and fairly surprising from you guys. So there was nothing on the page for that?
There were little bits—I think I gave each of the guys a page. But it doesn’t have…it had words on it, descriptions of what we were gonna do, and “play this kind of thing here”—there is one section in the middle where it definitely becomes a melody and a set of chord changes, so that was written down for them. But most of it is playing off each other and, I guess, watching me for cues to the different sections. And the piece itself does actually relate to an event, but I don’t really want to talk about what it is, ’cause I like people to come up with their own stories, but it actually describes a particular event that happened to some of us.
What attracted you to “Blue Shadows,” the Randy Newman piece that ends the record?
Really, the attraction came from the movie The Three Amigos. Dan Aran and I are big fans of that movie, and the song really doesn’t fit the theme of the record, so what I like to say is, every detective novel has a red herring, and this is our red herring on this record. I don’t know; it’s so out of what we would normally do, it’s a cowboy song and it kind of takes people by surprise. We played it a few times at gigs last year, before we recorded it, and it always got a great response. It’s got a good set of changes, and Randy Newman’s fantastic.
So it didn’t require all that much transformation, from his version to yours?
Well, we kept his bass line, I guess, the bass line that Marco plays throughout is from the movie, and I guess I arranged it a little bit, because it’s got extra sections that I didn’t want to bother with. So maybe I simplified it slightly.
Your own track titles are fairly odd; what inspires you to call a piece “I’m a Nurse, I’m an Engineer,” or something like that?
There’s almost always some reason behind it. “I’m a Nurse, I’m an Engineer” happened to be an Israeli TV show that, when I was in Israel, one of the guys was sort of talking about and singing about, so I took the idea from that. But I have to admit that most of the titles tend not to necessarily have that much to do with the pieces themselves. I know that people like to write pieces and have very descriptive titles, and “this is really what I was thinking about when I wrote it,” but I don’t really work that way. I tend to write a tune, and honestly, most of my tunes just have numbers until the record comes out. And then Marc [Free] and Nick [O’Toole] will harass me until I come up with names for them. The tune comes first, and then the title comes later.
You should just keep the numbers. It works for Anthony Braxton…
All the classical musicians do it. They just record “Opus No. 12,” but I think they’re right, it does need something with a little more pizzazz than that. I could title the albums like that as well—Led Zeppelin style, just one, two, three and four.
Have you always played the alto saxophone, and what drew you to the instrument?
I grew up with classical music in the family—both my parents were classical musicians. So I grew up playing piano and clarinet, and then a friend of my father’s had an alto just sitting round his house and he lent it to me. And really, that’s the only reason I got into alto. I always wanted to play the saxophone, and I guess most people go to tenor and I probably would have done the same, but it was an alto that fell in my lap. So I took to it and really didn’t look at the tenor until I was in Sydney, when I was playing a lot of rock ’n’ roll on tenor. I used to play in R&B bands and rock ’n’ roll cover bands and stuff. So I was playing tenor in those, but in jazz, I was sticking to alto all the way. And then it’s only in the past seven or eight years that I’ve tried to bring the tenor into my playing as well.
It’s been my experience that most alto players tend to stick to the alto, whereas most tenor players will play a soprano, or a baritone, or whatever’s lying around.
Well, I think part of that is the different keys. I think tenor players go to soprano because they’re both in B flat, and alto players will pick up baritone because they’re both in E flat. That makes it easier for learning tunes and transposing everything. But I think the real reason most people stick to one is they’re really very different instruments. The mechanics are the same, and theoretically you should be able to pick one up and pick the other up and not have any trouble, but you really have to treat them as different instruments. And this is why it’s taken me so long to make it part of what I do, two horns. Because I really don’t want to sound like just an alto player playing tenor. So I’m putting a lot of work into actually making myself both a tenor player and an alto player, individually. Getting a good tone on each instrument is a big challenge, I think. You have to give them respect, treat them as separate instruments and put the time in to get a proper sound on both of them.
Who are the players whose work inspires you the most, and are there alto players that you think are overshadowed by Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean?
No, I don’t think so; I think the people who’ve become famous have become famous for a reason. The legend of Charlie Parker doesn’t live for 80 years without there being some reason for it. He was the greatest of all, I think. My guy’s always been Sonny Stitt. He’s been slightly overlooked by history, I think, and deserves more credit than he gets. He’s always looked at as somebody standing in the shadow of Charlie Parker, but he really had a very personal sound and definitely his own style. So he’s always been my go-to guy for alto playing. And tenor-wise I’ve always been a Dexter Gordon fan. Greatest tenor sound ever, I think. The other guy I’ve been digging a lot is Gene Ammons on tenor, who I also think is a little bit overlooked. ‘Cause he wasn’t as technically showy as a lot of the other guys, but incredible tone on the instrument, and that’s really what’s always attracted me to players anyway, is the sound.
You play with vocalists fairly often; how does that change your approach to a song? Do you phrase in a way similar to a vocalist, or do you employ techniques only available to a horn player, like valve tapping or circular breathing? Does that have appeal for you?
Not particularly; I don’t change techniques, really, when I’m playing with vocalists. But I have to say that I enjoy playing with great vocalists a lot, but I’m possibly the pickiest person about vocalists ever. This is gonna sound bad, but I dislike almost all of them. So sometimes I get to work with a singer I love to work with, and then I feel that I—there’s a real skill to playing horn with a singer, and a lot of horn players don’t really think about it very much, but phrasing your lines, giving the singer enough room, and using the horn lines to complement what they do, is something that singers certainly appreciate, and I think it makes for great music, something that everybody likes to listen to. Horn players like to play a lot of notes; they like to always be the center of attention, I think. That’s why we’re bandleaders, and at the front of the stage. But you really have to give over the stage to the singer and be there to complement their performance, and find the right places to play and the right places to shut up.
You’ve had the same band for almost a decade now; how do you keep a steady lineup in a cannibalistic environment like New York?
[laughs] I’ve been really very lucky with the guys I’ve got in the band. And I guess it must be eight years now, and it was all pretty much a fluke. Dan Aran and I were hanging around a lot together when I first moved to New York, and we played a lot, and he kind of recommended the other guys. But it’s not like the old days where you were really keeping together a band. It’s not like the guys are on salary or something. I mean, we’re lucky to work a couple of times a month, really. So it’s really just the fact that I’ve found some guys who’ve dedicated themselves to the project, who said, “We like what Nick’s doing and we want to be a part of it,” and I know they turned down other gigs to do mine, which I’m really flattered and honored by. So it’s just pure luck. I try to give them music that they want to play, and give them plenty of space to play on the gigs, and they seem to enjoy it.
You and the rest of the band seem fairly image-conscious. How important is it to you to be an entertainer and to put on a show? If you were booked into The Stone or the Jazz Gallery instead of Smalls, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think so. I think—no, I don’t think I could. I approach the presentation of the music the same way I do the music itself, in that it has to be something that I would like to listen to and a show that I would like to see. When I go and hear a band, I like to hear somebody talking to me about what they’re doing, whether explaining what they’re doing or engaging with me in some way. My natural way of doing that is to sort of joke around a little bit, have some fun with the audience. I know those rooms you mentioned are very serious listening rooms, and I would like to think that we’d be able to turn an audience around and say, we’re here to entertain you and have a good time as well as present some serious music. So I think I would do the same thing.
I read that you worked on cruise ships for a while. What was that like, and what did you take away from that experience that’s still with you in what you’re doing now?
I took away some money from that, but that’s really all I got from cruise ships. I did, I think, 12 months in total—three four-month contracts. That’s a long time to be out there. And what I would do is save up the money—’cause they pay you okay, and you don’t have anything to spend money on—so I would save the money, and then come to New York. And that’s how I could afford to get here each time. And I guess there’s some good showbiz stuff that I learned, and I picked up a lot of old tunes that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise, but I don’t think it’s a particularly valuable experience. It was a good way to save up money to get to New York, though. I hope I don’t have to do it again, but I always tell young musicians, if they don’t have grants from the government or rich parents, it’s a good way of saving some bread and doing what you want to do.