The penultimate song on the solo piano record Bryan Nichols will be premiering at the Dakota on Tuesday night is simple and elegant, anchored by a contemplative three-chord vamp and clocking in at an efficient 2 minutes, 57 seconds. Nichols named it “We Live Here,” which almost became the title of the entire album before he settled on “Looking North.”
“The whole record is meant to be a meditation on Minnesota,” Nichols said. “This is the music I make because I live here — it would be much different if I lived in New York.”
Nichols lives in southwest Minneapolis, less than 3 miles from the hospital where he was born 36 years ago. Growing up, his family moved to Burnsville when his mother got a schoolteaching job there. Now he is back in the neighborhood of his infancy, raising his own sons, Hollis, 4, and Ambrose, 2, while his wife, Marcie, works as an optometrist.
By night, Nichols is one of the most active and respected artists on the Twin Cities jazz scene, leading or participating in a half-dozen ongoing ensembles. By day, he is the stay-at-home dad who steals away to his Steinway-designed Boston Piano — a gift to himself after he won a McKnight Fellowship in 2010 — when the kids are napping.
“Looking North” was born out of those daytime solo workshops. Nichols went into the studio with three composed tunes and two covers by his contemporary Minnesotans — “Lonesome Tremolo Blues” by local duo the Pines and “Lullaby for Sharks” off the first Bad Plus album, written by the band’s drummer, Dave King, with whom Nichols plays in the jazz-rock supergroup Gang Font.
The remaining five songs on “Looking North” were culled from 20 improvisations Nichols unfurled on his single day of recording. They range from “Fractures,” an intricate, suite-like workout with at least four segments, to spare, tranquil gems such as “Lake View.”
The composers and pianists Nichols has long admired — including Henry Threadgill, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett — blur the line between composition and improvisation, so the entire song feels like an organic process. He correctly believes “Looking North” reflects his own growth in that vein.
Of course, precious few venues offer a prestigious showcase for a relatively esoteric event like a solo piano performance. Nichols earned the Dakota gig on the basis of his reputation performing in myriad ensembles at choice clubs in the area. He has proved himself a versatile, daring and inventive keyboardist in lead and accompanying roles.
Bassist Chris Bates remembers Nichols as a teenage student attending a jazz workshop put on by Bates’ band at the time, the Motion Poets, more than 20 years ago.
“The Poets had a running joke when we encountered somebody special — ‘he’s going to be a player someday,’ ” Bates said. “Sure enough, it wasn’t long before he was showing up at the best jam sessions on breaks from college.”
Originally, Nichols was going to be a doctor. As a National Merit Scholar, he had a full scholarship to Iowa State in pre-med. But he couldn’t deny his love of music, getting a less challenging degree in genetics to better concentrate on jazz. When his wife (whom he met as a junior) was accepted to the Illinois College of Optometry, he immersed himself in the fertile Chicago music scene from 2001-05.
He gained notice during top-notch jam sessions at iconic locales such as the Velvet Lounge and the Green Mill, playing with now-renowned figures such as trumpeter Corey Wilkes and saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and appearing on the 2004 album “Hope, Future and Destiny” by flutist Nicole Mitchell, former head of the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
“When I came back to Minneapolis, it wasn’t like a younger brother,” Nichols asserted. “I was more so fully formed.”
“Absolutely,” affirmed drummer J.T. Bates, the most clear-cut “older brother” to Nichols among local jazz musicians. “There was a solidifying he went through in Chicago. I like his confidence and his balance. He is listening and reacting, but he is also putting his own ideas out there, pushing a band.”
Forming a power trio
The second set at the Dakota on Tuesday will feature Nichols with J.T. Bates and Chris Bates, a trio Nichols hopes will be the vehicle for his third album. (His first, “Bright Moments” by the Bryan Nichols Quintet, was released in 2011.)
“I learned how to play jazz from J.T. Bates,” he said flatly. “He and Chris and I all write original tunes and play well together.”
All three members of the ensemble revel in a sense of adventure. J.T Bates calls it “a trust level that gets you out of normal into something daring because you are not afraid to crash and burn.” Chris Bates says they “toggle into our own group explorations.” And Nichols refers to it as “really improvising rather than just recombining phrases we know in another way; making something beautiful and new.”
“I am lucky to be able to do this,” Nichols concluded, referring to “Looking North” and the Dakota showcase. “I am in a position where, whether the people like what I am playing or not, they know that this is the music I wanted to make.”
Britt Robson is a Twin Cities-based writer.