Nelson Rangell Interview
Talking Music With
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
One of the hippest sax players in this business and fresh out of the studio with a great new CD that’s called My American Songbook Vol. 1. we take a minute out to talk with Koch Records recording artist, Mr. Nelson Rangell.
NR: How are you Sir Baldwin Smith?
Smitty: (laughing) I’m wonderful thank you. You’ve had an amazing career that began as a teenager, how did you become so interested in making music?
NR: I come from a musical family, my brothers Andrew and Bobby are both professional musicians, as is my sister Paula. Andrew is a Concert Pianist, Paula is a Singer in New Orleans, and my brother Bobby is a Saxophonist and Flautist living in Paris for the past twenty years. When I was 15 my parents got me a flute. I had an interest in becoming a drummer or a flutist, and I can say luckily for my parents it was the latter. And the rest is kind of history as I really took to the instrument.
Smitty: Well you mastered your craft rather quickly because you received some great awards early on in your career, namely Downbeat Magazine’s National Student Recording Awards competition.
NR: Yes, I won both the high school soloist and college best soloist award from that magazine. That was a long time ago, but I’m still proud of that. I’m still far from mastering my craft, but I guess I got a little bit of speed out of the gate in any case.
Smitty: Talk about your early schooling how that effected your skills and knowledge of making music.
NR: I had attended a summer program at the Interlock and Arts Academy in high school which was very important. And I also want to mention that in the Denver (Colorado) public school system, much like your school system there in Houston Smitty; this was a school system that had a huge emphasis on the arts and on music. That was more than twenty five years ago that I was in high school, and I just hope so much that the kids now are not deprived of the type of high school arts programs that I experienced. Because it made such an enlarging difference in my whole life and perception of the world, and I would hope that all kids get to experience that. That kind of intelligence in many, many ways is just as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic. All of that was a precursor to my going to New York.
Smitty: Moving to New York, looking back, was that a good move for you?
NR: Well when I went to college at the New England Conservatory, that proved to be very important. New York was certainly another part of my professional schooling, and I felt that, that experience, both that urban experience and quite frankly that jazz experience was of central importance in my development as a musician and as a person. And I would almost wish for anyone who wants to have some sort of jazz involvement in their own awareness and playing, that they could experience being in an urban center like New York. For me, being in a place like New York, with all of that history, with all of that humanity, to this day, weighs hugely in my own consciousness of music and my own consciousness of just what’s out there. Yes, my experience there was of central importance, and was an excellent move for me.
Smitty: Yes, so how did you come about on the jazz scene? Because I know that you studied extensively in the arts, how did jazz come into the picture?
NR: Well, I can tell you that I always loved music. It’s hilarious, I remember taking a box and a half of all of my old and all scratched up rock LPs to the local used record store, and trading all of them for one Miles Davis record.
NR: I don’t remember exactly the record. It was like a Miles Davis live record at some place in San Francisco like the Black Hawk or something like that. It was just kind of funny. My jazz consciousness, on some level, well it was just in my household. My brother Bobby was a jazz musician and just barely ten years older than me. And little by little that genre’ and style of music, while it was not my favorite, listening to it on a consistent basis, it had a profound effect on me. But that was when I really started to turn onto jazz. I remember my first experience listening to the Brecker Brothers. That was like nothing I’d ever heard before and it kind of started it all, to be frank. Just a kind of incredibly compelling sort of thing. As soon as I heard those voices, Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker and David Sanborn playing together and I was like “Wow! What is this?”
Smitty: (laughing) Trust me, you and a lot more musicians had that response.
NR: And that was I guess kind of the time when I started playing the flute. I remember when I started playing; I was probably trying to figure out how to make it sound more like a saxophone (laughing).
Smitty: That’s interesting
NR: The sax just had so much power.
Smitty: It remains today my favorite instrument. It always has been I must admit.
NR: Well the sax has great range of expression, and to this day to me, there’s many more saxophonists in jazz. On the flute I feel a little bit like I have something; it’s more kind of uniquely mine. There is less people doing it. But I feel in playing both instruments, while they both have something to offer that’s very unique, and for that matter from soprano sax to alto sax to tenor sax, those members of the saxophone family are all capable of saying uniquely different things, just because of where their voice range is and their tambour. The saxophone has a huge range of expression. Just look at the alto, you just have everything from a kind of Paul Desmond sound and way of playing, to any number of other extremes, whether it be from David Sanborn or Ornette Coleman and everything in between. It’s incredible just the vocal characteristics, and the huge range of sound that can come out of the same instrument.
Smitty: I totally agree. I love the sound. So tell me, you’ve worked with some great musicians in your career. I can think of several; Eric Gale, David Sandborn, Jaco Pastorius, and Hiram Bullock. Talk about these musicians as to how they might have enhanced or influenced your career.
NR: Well, There is a long history of things, back to New York. When I moved to New York as a kid, I met so many people. It was kind of like a movie. I remember meeting Gordon Edwards, who was a very popular session bass player and who, at the time, had a group called “Stuff”. It had Gordon, Steve Gadd and Chris Parker on drums, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, and Eric Gale playing. It was a rhythm section that Gordon was involved in. I met him at a jam session. I was a kid going around trying to play and be heard by people. From meeting Gordon, I ended up doing a lot of session work in New York and that was both really exciting and terrifying to me. Every time I’d walk into a room somewhere I’d end up meeting some new heavy guys; whether it was Eddie Daniels, George Marge, Phil Bodner, or Paul Schaffer sitting on piano, Harvey Estren. I got to play with Gil Evans Band several times, and little by little I started playing at clubs around town, guys started to hear my name, and just out of the blue I got a call from David Sanborn. He asked to meet me and if I wanted to practice and that began a little bit of a relationship that I was lucky enough to share with him during my time in New York. Subsequently in all of these years I haven’t had really very much contact with him, but in my time in New York he was quite generous with me and shared some interests with me. That was an interesting relationship and I of course owe him a lot. He was kind to me and I appreciated him as a person and as a musician.
Smitty: It’s nice to build those types of positive relationships.
NR: That was something and on any given night there were incredible guys playing. There’s some amazing players in New York that I got to play with. On any given night, you know, if I was playing a crazy Brazilian gig, maybe it would be Jaco Pastorius that just happened to be playing bass or Delmar Brown who was a keyboardist at the time. It just goes on and on and it’s not really name dropping, it’s just that these were kind of the local musicians in New York obviously. And if you were a kid who somehow was able to play and got to sit in, you got to play with THOSE guys, and hang out with THOSE guys. So this was important in my formation and as I got older I still get to play with THOSE guys and it’s a trip because they are still THOSE guys.
Smitty: And a great bunch of guys.
NR: I’ve never gotten over that, even though I’ve played with a lot of them quite a few times at this point. They’re still THOSE guys.
Smitty: Playing for Keeps, I felt like this was your breakthrough album. Where you came on the scene, you had those suspenders on and you were doing your thing, and this was just a killer sound that just placed a signature on your music. Tell me about that album and what changed in your producing and your playing at that time. Because it was totally different up to that point.
NR: Well you have to keep in mind Smitty that I’d only done one record previous. All I can say is between albums one and two, and hopefully three and four and on and on, there is some sort of progression happening. Even if for no other reason than the artist continues to practice and just gets a little better. I feel that now would be, after all of these years, it’s now that there’s clearer direction. I’ve practiced a long time in terms of both production talent and vision in what I want to say, and actual ability on the instrument. Hopefully it just keeps getting better. Hopefully in four years from now, we’ll look at this record that I’ve done now and compare it with what I’m doing then. I hope that I keep evolving and keep improving.
Smitty: Yeah. Speaking of that, what’s your favorite part of making music? Is it producing, the infinite concept of the song, or the arranging, what’s the favorite part of making music for you?
NR: You know, just the playing. I enjoy going downstairs in my basement and practicing an enormous amount. I love feeling prepared, feeling like I’m doing my best. I love feeling like I’ve practiced all day long and now I’m going to the gig, and that I’m at my best. That I’m going to be in a spiritual and technical place and just head space where I’m going to deliver. It’s going to be a meditation. It’s probably my favorite thing, when I get to a gig and I feel totally prepared, I’ve got my mind and my body and my skills and my heart into some place where I really feel good, and it’s good for everybody. Therapeutic for me, therapeutic for the audience, enjoyable. That’s a great feeling for a person to have.
Smitty: Yeah I love that, it’s totally cool. Well let’s get into this new record.
NR: Yeah it’s my favorite.
Smitty: It’s your favorite record?
Smitty: It’s called My American Songbook Volume 1. Talk about the title, and how you arrived at the title. I’m sure there’s a story there.
NR: Well we’re at a pivotal time. American Songbook is not a unique title. Whether it’s Rod Stewart or several other artists both contemporary or in the past, I’m sure that many people have done a collection of American songs. The reason that I called it “My American Songbook Volume 1” is because these were tunes that for me, have some unique place. For me, as an individual and my experience as an American, they were from a diverse collection of composers, and the idea of American composers and American influences. And the idea of calling it volume 1 implied the fact that there’s only about another 4000 volumes that could come. Volume 1, I wanted to put that in because I wanted people to know that there’s so, so, so many more great, great American compositions than the tiny fraction that appeared on my record. Just a microscopic fraction. There’s only so much you can put on one disc right?
Smitty: (laughing)Yeah, it’s a great selection of songs on this CD. It took me back I must admit. A lot of reminiscing. And it was nice to do that with song, because all of the memories start to emerge, and there are the great tunes at that. So it was a beautiful experience to do that and to do it with such great music composition. For example, track 3, “Don’t You Worry bout a Thing”, I mean who doesn’t know that song? Stevie Wonder, that’s a great tune. There are memories around every song you know, and I thought that was a beautiful thing.
NR: I think in this record there is a long text that accompanies the tunes. And I write to people within the CD about why I made these particular song choices, what they mean to me and maybe some experience that I had connected with them. “Don’t You Worry bout a Thing”, I could have picked any number of Stevie Wonder tunes. He wrote a huge amount of Americana pieces that also were social commentary. “Living For the City” and “Superstition”, these were heavy tunes politically as they apply to the American theme, spiritually they’re heavy tunes. “Don’t You Worry bout a Thing”, has quite a bit of social commentary if you read the words to the tune. Quite a little rye commentary about what people place importance on. It’s pretty interesting, what seems like a little happy tune, and it is, but you’ve just got to read it and he’s getting it in there. The meaning of the superficiality of what we’re attracted to. It’s a commentary on what we put a lot of our energy in.
Smitty: Yeah that’s so true. ” That’s the Way of the World” the Earth Wind and Fire tune. That was a heavy song.
NR: There again, the words are a little bit of a lament. They’re saying a golden young and childlike heart can be easily turned old and cold, the way of the world.
Smitty: Yes Indeed. You know what my favorite tune is; I mean I love them all. I love playing this over and over, because there is not a bad tune on this CD so you could just let it ride you know? I love the last track, track 12, “Don’t forget those forgotten”.
NR: The only original.
Smitty: Yeah Man I love that song, the title, everything about that song.
NR: It’s my own little bit of social commentary. It’s a tune that for me, in a very humble way is reminding all of us to try and make an effort to try and remember all of these meek things, all of the little things of God’s creation. I feel very strongly that the last will be first. Always see yourself in your brother; you’re not so very far from anybody on any different corner or any street corner. We think, some of us, by birth we have this house or this or that. It’s interesting how this works. I think we forget as we’re driving in our car, it’s only by grace that we’re driving in our car instead of being that person on the street.
Smitty: Absolutely! You’re so right. I love what you did with this CD. You not only shared your American Songbook with us, you shared your story too with each song. It’s a cool thing.
NR: Well, it’s a story. I really believe in this record. If nothing else, I take ownership for it. I can’t always say that about every record. Whatever this record is, it is my ownership. I didn’t have too much imposed on me on this record.
Smitty: This is a great CD, I just love every tune. This is one of those CDs that you can just let it play.
NR: I think there’s a lot there within a pop reality, and that’s important to me, this is a CD that might be said to have several layers to it. I don’t think that it operates on the most obvious level all of the time, and at the same time I recognize it’s not the most infinitely deep CD either. It ain’t Bach. (laughing)
Smitty: You’ve got some great players with you on this project as well. Kip(Kuepper) is there, your mainstay.
NR: He’s been around a long time. The guy I’ve been working with is a very young man, Alex Nekrasov, he’s a young Russian kid, a really brilliant guy. He’s been my writing partner and my arranging partner and my production partner on this record, and the Christmas record. He is a singularly amazing young musician.
Smitty: I noticed his talents right away.
NR: I haven’t met anyone too much more talented than Alex.
Smitty: He’s a great talent.
NR: Yeah well his production or the production on this record speaks for itself, and the Christmas record. Then you know we’ve got Jimmy Haslip, Russell Ferrante, and Chuck Loeb on this record.
Smitty: Some great players. And Brian Monroney.
NR: Yes, he’s playing with Tom Jones and Paul Taylor these days.
Smitty: Yeah, you’ve got an excellent collection of great artists to compliment you on this record and to lend their talents. I would be very shocked if radio didn’t embrace this CD.
NR: Well, Radio embracing it isn’t some sort of final barometer of whether something is good or not. I hope that radio will play it, for obvious reasons but more important I hope that it will get to the listening posts, I think that if people hear it they’re going to like it a lot. I feel like it’s a nice record to listen to through and through.
Smitty: Yes it is a very nice record. Are you going to be getting out with this record and doing some live performances? What’s happening?
NR: Yes. I’ll be doing several gigs with Don Grusin
NR: I’m on his Grammy nominated “The Hang” record. And I’m doing dates with Him. Currently in New Orleans at the Jazz Heritage Festival. Playing with Dave Grusin at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado Concert Conference on World Affairs, along with Kevyn Lettau, Michael Shapiro, Bruce Flowers… I’m going to Russia as a guest soloist later this year.
Smitty: Very cool.
NR: I’m doing “Smooth Jazz for Scholars” for Jay Rowe, Chuck Loeb, and Marion Meadows, in April.
Smitty: Sounds like you’ve got a full schedule coming up.
NR: Well I hope so. These are nice gigs, and I have my fingers crossed that I’ll have about twenty more of them. But this is just what’s on the radar right now.
Smitty: Very nice, and you have a website.
NR: Yes, it’s www.nelsonrangell.com.
Smitty: So what can your fans find there?
NR:Well it’s a typical home page; I’ll have a forum, all sorts of goodies of information. It should be a very nice website visually.
Smitty: Yes the cool stuff. Nelson It was so cool of you to share your thoughts and insight with us about this great new CD, and all the great things you’ve done over the years, the great projects and what you have coming in 2005. You’ve had a stellar career to this point and we certainly wish you all the very best with this new CD and this coming year of 2005. We’ve been talking with one of the “High Def” flute and sax players in the business, Koch recording artists Nelson Rangell with his fantastic new CD My American Songbook Vol. 1. It is in stores now and it comes highly recommended. Nelson, thanks again, all the very best on the tour, big ups.
NR: Thank you Smitty.