Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Lewis Nash: Hearing around Corners

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Lewis Nash is hands down one of the most important drummers alive today. He’s been first-call for many of jazz’s top artists for over two decades, from his first tours with Betty Carter to his most recent work as a member of The Blue Note Seven. Legendary bassist Ron Carter recently said, “I’ve turned down gigs because Lewis wasn’t on them.” Winnipeggers will be glad to see Lewis again—he has been on the Asper series stage twice now, and will be back in September to perform with Gerald Clayton, Houston Person, and our very own Steve Kirby. I had a chance to catch up with Lewis in July at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

I’ve heard people say that you play like you have ESP. How do you develop that?

To communicate and play music on a high level, you have to be fully present in the moment the music is being created. When you’re completely tuned in, you’re hearing everything that’s going on, musically or non-musically. Body language, sound, movement, all these things come into play. While listening, you realize how many choices and options you have all the time—from beat to beat, from section to section of a song.

So what people think of as ESP or intuition can be learned and developed by being present and paying attention to these interactions. It’s a lot like life. People tend to go through a day in habitual mode. They’ll watch TV or fix something to eat or do the dishes and not really be fully present to whatever they’re doing. Awareness is something you can choose to develop.

With improvisational music there’s always an element of not knowing what’s coming next. I like to make an analogy with sports. At the beginning of the game, no one knows what the plays will be, what the score will be or who will win. That’s how it is with jazz: the audience might be familiar with the tunes, but not even the players know the direction the music will go or who will play a great solo. The beauty of improvisation is that you don’t know. From night to night, even if you play the same songs, they’re always different.

What things have helped you achieve your level of success?

Determination, patience, and commitment. Daring—you’ve got to be brave enough to try stuff and see what happens. Take gigs with music that you know is hard, and learn it. You have to put yourself in situations that force you to grow. Growth builds confidence. As you do more varied things, you won’t be filled with trepidation the next time someone calls you for something that’s musically challenging.

What have you noticed about younger drummers?

I will say this: they don’t need more ability to get around the instrument! What they need is the ability to communicate with people through their music. Sometimes a young musician has it, but more often it takes some years to live life and learn how to communicate. I hear many young musicians who aren’t sure what to put where, or with how much emphasis—you have to learn what to leave out and what to keep in.

Many young musicians are very talented and have lots of potential, but they are so often caught up in being on the cutting edge and trying not to sound like someone who came before them. If you want to be a great jazz musician, you can’t avoid Bird, Dizzy, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver—it’s impossible! I don’t know why people want to call themselves jazz musicians if they don’t have any elements of that in their music. Just call yourself an improvising musician.

I appreciate a lot of the musics of the world which have nothing to do with jazz. I appreciate musicianship, I appreciate skill on an instrument, I appreciate a beautiful sound, I appreciate the ability to touch others through a voice or instrument. What is an issue with me is when people say they want to play jazz, but they don’t want to listen to Coleman Hawkins or Bird. It’s almost like dissing your grandparents: without them your parents wouldn’t be here, and without them you wouldn’t be here!

Dealing with the history doesn’t mean being less creative or playing like someone else. If you understand and value the language, the history, and what made the music what it is, then when you play, even if you write all original music, you will bring a reverence for the essence of this music and a certain sensibility which will inform all of your composing and playing.

Some of the things that people call clichés are like sayings passed down from generation to generation as part of the tradition. For me, the way that Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes established what the drumset does—that really influenced the direction of the music, not just the drums.

I enjoy playing this music. My main focus isn’t necessarily on doing something brand new. You don’t just say, “Now I am going to innovate!” That just happens naturally, as part of a continuum.

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