Monday, December 20, 2010

Music feature: Aussie bassist Parrott masters American jazz

Nicki Parrott, who plays the JAMS series
tomorrow night at CityPlace.
(Photo by Mary Jane Photography)

By Bill Meredith

For every Jaco Pastorius or Charles Mingus,‭ ‬there are countless jazz bass players who never become household names,‭ ‬so most take up the workmanlike instrument for deeper reasons than‭ ‬attaining celebrity.

In the case of Nicki Parrott,‭ ‬it‭ ‬was family.

At age‭ ‬15‭ ‬in her native Australia,‭ ‬she started her performing career when her older sister,‭ ‬saxophonist Lisa Parrott,‭ ‬needed a bassist.‭ ‬Before long,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬it was evident that the‭ ‬self-taught musician was clearly playing bass for the love of‭ ‬the instrument.

After studying at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in Sydney,‭ ‬where she was able to take additional lessons with touring bass dignitaries like Ray Brown and John Clayton,‭ ‬Parrott made her move.‭ ‬In‭ ‬1994,‭ ‬at age‭ ‬24,‭ ‬an Australian‭ ‬Young Achievers Award provided her with the funds to move to the United States and study with renowned New York City bassist Rufus Reid.‭ ‬She's now based in Brooklyn,‭ ‬and has only left to tour ever since.

‭“‬I‭’‬m a permanent resident here,‭ ‬but not a U.S.‭ ‬citizen yet,‭”‬ Parrott said before her Dec.‭ ‬21‭ ‬concert at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace,‭ ‬her Aussie accent still intact.‭ “‬Citizenship is on my to-do list.‭”

That being said,‭ ‬she‭’‬s certainly mastered America‭’‬s musical art form.‭ ‬Now also a breathy,‭ ‬self-taught vocalist,‭ ‬Parrott's recording and performance resume includes work with the likes of Clark Terry,‭ ‬Billy Taylor,‭ ‬Dick Hyman,‭ ‬Randy Brecker,‭ ‬Mike Stern,‭ ‬Howard Alden,‭ ‬Ken Peplowski,‭ ‬Harry Allen,‭ ‬and Bucky and John Pizzarelli.‭ ‬In addition to her recording sessions,‭ ‬she‭’‬s played with the New York Pops and on Broadway shows.

For nine years,‭ ‬Parrott also played every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan with legendary guitarist Les Paul.‭ ‬When the icon died in‭ ‬2009‭ ‬at age‭ ‬94,‭ ‬Parrott wanted‭ ‬to carry on his legacy at the venue‭ ‬--‭ ‬which she‭’‬s done ever since as bassist and vocalist for the Les Paul Trio,‭ ‬with guitarist Lou Pallo and pianist John Colianni.

‭“‬I first started doing vocals while working with Les,‭”‬ Parrott says,‭ “‬because he made me‭ ‬do it‭! ‬I'd never actually sung much before.‭ ‬He was wonderful,‭ ‬and it shocked us when he died because he looked so good.‭ ‬He was very coherent right up until the end,‭ ‬and almost always pretty peppy,‭ ‬and very funny.‭ ‬I'd jokingly blame him for all the technological overkill in recording studios,‭ ‬since he did invent multi-tracking,‭ ‬and he'd laugh and go along with it.

‭“‬A guitarist would sit in and play a Gibson Les Paul model and he‭’‬d say,‭ ‬‘If I hadn‭’‬t invented that piece of crap,‭ ‬you wouldn‭’‬t have been able to play it so loud‭!‬’ We‭’‬re carrying on Mondays at the club as a tribute to him,‭ ‬and we bring in guest artists every week.‭”

On recent Mondays,‭ ‬those included Jane Monheit,‭ ‬Frank Vignola and Todd Rundgren.‭ ‬Forthcoming guests in December and January include Bert Jansch,‭ ‬Reb Beach,‭ ‬Mike Stern,‭ ‬Victor Wooten,‭ ‬Jim Hall and Greg Osby.

Parrott's trio for her‭ ‬Tuesday concert in the Jazz Arts Music Society‭ (‬JAMS‭) ‬series at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace includes Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello and Florida-based‭ ‬drummer Ed Metz Jr.‭ ‬ The three first recorded on Metz‭’‬s‭ ‬2008‭ ‬CD‭ ‬Bridging the Gap,‭ ‬and they plan to record a live album for Arbors Records during a late-January date at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head,‭ ‬S.C.‭ ‬If the CityPlace show was any indication,‭ ‬the live CD should be a must-have item for any fan of the trio.

‭“‬I've been playing with Rossano for about‭ ‬10‭ ‬years,‭”‬ Parrott says.‭ “‬He moved to New York a few years ago,‭ ‬and we've recorded a couple duo CDs within the past six years or so.‭ ‬I think he's one of the most brilliant jazz and classical pianists alive today.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve found that European jazz musicians seem to have more of a classical background than American jazz musicians,‭ ‬and Rossano typifies that.

‭“‬As for Ed,‭ ‬his CD turned out to be one of my favorite recordings for Arbors Records,‭”‬ Parrott continues.‭ “‬So when the three of us played for a week at a club in Switzerland last‭ ‬year,‭ ‬we were really able to home in on our material.‭ ‬Now we're used to playing with each other‭; ‬we have repertoire,‭ ‬and it‭’‬s great fun.‭”

JAMS president and founder Susan Merritt‭ ‬remembered the joy Parrott exhibited during a previous appearance for the organization,‭ ‬which was part of the reason she was booked for its special holiday concert.

‬“Nicki first played for us a few years ago with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra,‭”‬ Merritt says.‭ “‬I'd also enjoyed her session work on a variety of albums on Arbors Records,‭ ‬and I recently saw her play with Ann Hampton Callaway.‭ ‬She's a great singer and bass player,‭ ‬and just adorable.‭”

When she left Australia in the mid-‭‘‬90s,‭ ‬Parrott left a jazz scene‭ ‬that she remembers as depreciating.

‭“‬There was always a jazz scene in Sydney,‭”‬ she says,‭ “‬but it seemed like it was more happening in the‭ ‬‘80s than in‭ ‬the‭ ‬‘90s.‭ ‬All the major cities there have a jazz scene‭ ‬--‭ ‬Melbourne,‭ ‬Perth,‭ ‬Brisbane.‭ ‬Sydney was really‭ ‬thriving in the late‭ ‬‘80s,‭ ‬but Melbourne probably has a better scene now.‭"

She doesn‭’‬t tour her native country much,‭ ‬but Parrott also remembers an ever-strong classical scene.

‭“‬All the major Australian cities‭ ‬have great symphony orchestras,‭”‬ she says,‭ “‬so there's a huge classical tradition there.‭ ‬And jazz is sort of a smaller branch of that.‭ ‬There‭ ‬are occasional festivals that I‭’‬ll play there,‭ ‬but otherwise there aren't really that many touring opportunities.‭”

That may be due,‭ ‬in part,‭ ‬to the amount‭ ‬of gigs Parrott plays in the U.S.‭ ‬Her trio will hit the stage in West Palm Beach fresh off a‭ ‬10-day,‭ ‬jazz-themed sail from Fort Lauderdale to the Caribbean aboard the Crystal Cruise line.‭ ‬Parrott is also busy within the modern,‭ ‬downsized,‭ ‬do-it-yourself reality that exists within the‭ ‬21st-century music industry.

‭“‬We all have‭ ‬to deal with the business side,‭”‬ she says.‭ “‬It‭’‬s not all practicing and performing,‭ ‬because most of us work without managers.‭ ‬Each gig requires a lot of planning between publicity,‭ ‬photos and press in general.‭ ‬So with travel,‭ ‬e-mails and all the other details,‭ ‬there's a lot less time to devote to your craft.‭”

Some of Parrott‭’‬s most time-consuming travel is to the Far East.

‭“‬I read a definition of jazz recently in a music union paper,‭”‬ she says.‭ “‬It was called‭ ‬‘America's most original art form‭; ‬beloved by Europeans.‭’‬ I‭’‬d add‭ ‬the Japanese to that as well.‭ ‬I‭’‬ve been to Switzerland five times this year,‭ ‬and I‭’‬ve released four albums in Japan,‭ ‬all with vocals,‭ ‬all of which have done‭ ‬quite well.‭ ‬So I‭’‬ve toured there,‭ ‬and I'll be going back again next year for the Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival.‭”

Parrott‭’‬s latest Japanese release is‭ ‬Black Coffee‭ ‬(Venus‭)‬.‭ ‬She also appears on this year‭’‬s‭ ‬All My Friends‭ ‬Are Here:‭ ‬Tribute‭ ‬to Arif Mardin‭ (‬Nunoise‭)‬,‭ ‬which features David Sanborn,‭ ‬Norah Jones,‭ ‬Bette Midler,‭ ‬Dianne Reeves and Willie Nelson and pays homage to the late Grammy-winning producer.‭ ‬Her latest domestic release is the second duo CD with Sportiello,‭ ‬last year‭’‬s‭ ‬Do It Again‭ (‬Arbors‭)‬.

The versatile bassist has come a long way,‭ ‬both literally and figuratively.

“I was the first female bass student my teacher had at the conservatorium in Sydney,‭”‬ Parrott says.‭ “‬My sister and I were always been influenced by a lot of different music,‭ ‬from Brazilian to Eric Clapton.‭ ‬Now I play acoustic and electric bass,‭ ‬and I don‭’‬t know many bassists in New York who don‭’‬t.‭ ‬I think the more diverse you are as a musician,‭ ‬the better you can be.‭”

That‭’‬s a common mantra for modern musicians in all genres,‭ ‬and for better or worse,‭ ‬it‭’‬s likely to shape music in general and jazz in particular in the future.

‭“‬I was talking to Harry Allen about‭ ‬that recently,‭”‬ Parrott says,‭ “‬and we agreed that it‭’‬s all about broadening one‭’‬s horizons.‭ ‬Harry will go from a gig playing with the Brazilian group Trio da Paz to recording a‭ ‬‘James Bond‭’‬ record.‭ ‬Jazz has almost always been somewhat of a marginalized art form,‭ ‬anyway‭; ‬never hugely popular unless you‭’‬re someone like Diana Krall.

‭“‬I‭ ‬just try to play with people who also play a lot of different styles.‭ ‬That way,‭ ‬I can broaden both my horizons and my repertoire.‭”

See the‭Nicki Parrott Trio‭ at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬on Tuesday,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬21,‭ ‬at the Harriet Himmel Theater,‭ ‬700‭ ‬S.‭ ‬Rosemary Ave.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach‭ (‬Tickets:‭ ‬$35‭; ‬call‭ ‬877-722-2820 or visit‭)‬.

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