In Conversations – Restive Soul with Kyle Nasser
Kyle Nasser‘s debut album Restive Soul, drew it’s title from a quote by the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, who had attributed his pursuit of politics to his own “restive and insatiable soul”. Author of “Democracy in America” as well, once said that “Life is to be entered up with courage”. Restive Soul is more than merely a label; it is the telling story of Kyle – a passage of learning, discovering and thanksgiving.
Kyle, originally from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and in his own words from a “decidedly non-musical family”. His earliest interest to play a musical instrument originated from observing a jazz duo play from at a local restaurant where his parents took him frequently. At six years old, Kyle fell in love with the sound of the saxophone. Later he asked the woodwind player from the jazz duo, Al Oliveira, for music lessons. Unfortunately, Kyle had to start off with the Clarinet since he was too small to hold a saxophone. After Al instilled an early passion for playing, Kyle went on to study with Margot Saulnier, Tony Coelho, and eventually the great Southcoast saxophonist, pianist, and composer, the late Rick Britto. “Rick Britto who was responsible for helping me really assimilate the theoretical and aesthetic parts of improvisation. I cut my lessons by playing in Cape Verdean clubs in New Bedford during high school.” In high school, Kyle was the lead tenor for the Massachusetts All-State and All-East Jazz Ensembles; he won several “outstanding soloist” and “MVP” awards at Northeast High School Jazz competitions.
When speaking of where he had taken his inspirations from, the Harvard and Berklee graduate expressed his strong interest in music, literature, and philosophy. “I draw from the entire history of jazz, particularly Don Byas, Bud Powell, Stan Getz, Hank Jones, Joe Henderson, Warne Marsh, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Lovano, Chris Cheek. I also love western classical music – Bach, late Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler, Hindemith, Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Part, and Penderecki. I’m also an avid reader and draw inspiration from philosophy and literature, particularly classical Greek thought. During the period that I composed most of the music on Restive Soul, I was near-obsessed with Plato’s Symposium and the idea of Eros.”
Certain fragments of “Democracy in America” is a parallel correspondence to Kyle’s process of pursuing music and composing the album Restive Soul. The French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “He who has confined his heart solely to the search for the goods of this world is always in a hurry, for he has only a limited time to find them, take hold of them, and enjoy them. His remembrance of the brevity of life constantly spurs him. In addition to the goods that he possesses, at each instant he imagines a thousand others that death will prevent him from enjoying if he does not hasten. This thought fills him with troubles, fears, and regrets, and keeps his soul in a sort of unceasing trepidation that brings him to change his designs and his place at every moment”; in addition, he said “Americans cleave to their material prosperity with a feverish anxiousness, making them restless in their desire to enjoy as many pleasures as possible in a limited time. A result of this insatiable drive for comfort is that Americans are generally unable to sustain an enduring effort towards one goal, because they are so accustomed to instant gratification. “A visit from the jazz master Hank Jones would soon shift the wind direction for Kyle.
At Harvard, Kyle studied economics and political philosophy. The decision to formally pursue a career in music arrived at his senior year after an illuminating encounter with Hank Jones. The legendary jazz pianist had come to Harvard to teach a master class, as part of the “Learning from Perfomers Program”, and play a concert with Joe Lovano and the Harvard Jazz Band. “It left a huge impression on me that an 88-year-old master was still performing with the zeal of the undergrads in the band. Seeing him in peak form and expressing joy through music at such an advanced age, with simple grace and sovereignty was really profound,” Nasser recalls. “We took him out to dinner, ended up playing a three-hour session, and then he asked us to take him home so that he could get in some practicing time before going to bed. That left a huge impression and reinforced that I should do this. I don’t remember having any young or old investment banker friends that seemed to be that happy.”
In an interview with JazzTimes, Hank Jones said “I don’t think I’ve done my best yet, that’s a goal that I’m working toward, and I haven’t gotten there yet. I haven’t done my best yet.” he added, “You know, what I enjoy the most is when I don’t make too many mistakes. Because every time you sit down at the piano you’re challenging yourself. But it’s not a competition. What you’re doing is you’re trying to make each performance be better than the last one. That’s what you work for. That’s what you hope for, to make each performance better than the last one.” Jones would conclude “Not perfection. Because I don’t believe there is such a thing as perfect. Perfection is something you strive for that you never actually reach. It’s a place where you and the instrument become one—your mind, your fingers, your body. I’m still trying to reach that level.”
It’s a well-kept secret to many that Harvard has a longstanding history with jazz since 1971. The Jazz Program at Harvard was originated by Director of Jazz Bands Tom Everett. Since 1976, the jazz program has been developed with the support of the Office for the Arts. Over the past 43 years, numerous well-known musicians have visited and played with the Harvard Jazz Band, including Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Benny Carter, Illinois Jacquet, Max Roach, Randy Weston, Roy Hargrove, Lester Bowie, Roy Haynes, Bennie Golson, Brian Lynch, Eddie Palmieri, Wallace Roney, Jimmy Heath, Teri-Lynne Carrington, Mulgrew Miller, Bobby Sanabria, Joshua Redman, Gerri Allen, Lionel Loueke, Cecil McBee, and many others. These educational and musical experiences make a huge impact on the Harvard Jazz Band and the students involved. Tom Everett told All About Jazz in an interview that “Harvard has a responsibility to educate, propagate, support, preserve, and document this music and all aspects of it. I am not qualified to go into all of the historical, social, racial, political and economic details of this music, but the university has a responsibility to do that. Having the opportunity to be here, for whatever fortunate and unlikely reasons, I felt I was in a position to do something about it. I just saw myself as being a catalyst to bring jazz to the fore. If you have passion and insight into the significance of an art form, but don’t choose to illuminate that significance, who will?”
To Kyle, even though he didn’t put his Harvard degree to any “practical use”, he believes “My time at Harvard changed the way I think and perceive the world. I was lucky to study the Western canon under renowned and controversial professor Harvey Mansfield. Also the graduate student John Collins had a huge intellectual influence on me.”
“In addition to academics, I also had many musically rewarding experiences while at Harvard. Tom Everett, who led the Harvard Bands while I was there, and the Office for the Arts (headed by Jack Megan) brought in many fantastic guest artists during my time there. I had the chance to share the stage (and meals) with artists such as Hank Jones, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Dave Douglas, Roswell Rudd, Joanne Brackeen, Jane Ira Bloom, Don Braden, etc. I was also lucky to study under Professor Ingrid Monson, whose deep knowledge of music and its social context is a huge boon to students at Harvard.”
Speaking of key motivations on producing this album and composing the pieces, “I became obsessed with counterpoint(contrasting element) at Berklee,” Kyle reminiscences, “You have to take traditional counterpoint courses, and it hit me that this is what I had been looking for and missing in a lot of the jazz that I’d been listening to and playing. I got the impression that a lot of people were writing tunes because they wanted to blow over them as opposed to having a conscious compositional direction to the piece. I wanted to make a quintet sound like an orchestra.” he added, “Counterpoint is fundamental to my composition process. I write mainly melodic lines and extrapolate the harmony from the note combinations. I always try to maintain balance – between rhythm, harmony, and melody, between simplicity and complexity, between motivic development and through-composition, between density and sparseness.”
In terms of the titles of the songs, Kyle added, “I can’t say that there was only one influence behind the compositions on Restive Soul, but most are the result of meditations on Eros and learning. Three of the songs (For Rick B, Angelique, and Trip to Lester’s) are dedicated to people in my life. Rick Britto was the aforementioned teacher, who passed away a couple years ago. Lester Grinspoon is a Harvard Medical School professor emeritus and marijuana activist who used to host gatherings at his house to discuss life, art, and politics. Angelique is an ex-girlfriend and close friend. Radiator Lady was based on the theme sung by the lady in the radiator from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Restive Soul, Shadow Army, Gyorgi Goose, Whitestone, Ecstatic Repose, and Rise all attempt to capture states of being – restlessness, darkness, ecstasy, grandeur, reflection.”
Kyle went on to study at Berklee College of Music on a full merit scholarship for music performance and education. While at Harvard and Berklee, Kyle was an active member in both the Harvard, Berklee and Boston music scenes, playing an eclectic assortment of styles ranging from straight-ahead jazz to funk and neo-soul to traditional Indian music. After graduating from Berklee, Kyle moved to New York City in 2010. Not limited solely to Jazz, he listens to a wide range of music from Classical to Soul, R&B, and Hip-hop. He teaches to help earn a living as musician. In addition, Kyle plays as a sideman with a few other groups. He is a member of the collective quartet Beekman that recently celebrated the release of its debut record (Vol.1, Discos Pendiente) with a tour of Chile this past January. The band will be doing the NYC release of that record on April 30th at the WhyNot Jazz Room. “The tour of Chile was incredible. We played playing clubs around the Santiago area and festivals in Las Condes, Nunoa, La Serena, and Maitencillo. The reception was really warm, which facilitated a great vibe to make music.” In reply to the question “where the wind is shifting now”, Kyle had a huge smile in his voice – “I just want to keep composing, playing and band-leading and see where that takes me!”
It’s only fitting to conclude with a quote from Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” To Kyle, may we hope for fair wind and a following sea.
Come Sunday was an album Charlie Haden recorded with Hank Jones, 16 years after the two jazz icons joined forces from their first collaboration “Steal Away”. Three months after the recording session, Hank Jones passed away at age 91 on May 16, 2010.
When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home