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Jazz pianist Bryan Nichols goes solo on album dedicated to Minnesota

Bryan Nichols

Bryan Nichols

Five minutes into a conversation with Bryan Nichols, and you get the sense this musician can run circles around any performer in the Twin Cities.

Nichols speaks rapidly, as if his tongue is trying to keep up with what's inside his head. That's especially the case when he talks about his new solo record, Looking North, which he'll celebrate Tuesday at the Dakota Jazz Club.

In the daytime, the jazz-by-way-of-classical pianist teaches piano at the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. He's a husband, he's a father to two young sons, and he performs in more than a half-dozen bands. On top of all that, he writes and performs his own music. 

Years ago — even after befriending local jazz heavyweights JT Bates, Mike Lewis, Dave King, and Jose James — Nichols fooled himself into thinking he wanted to be a doctor. He left Minnesota to attend college at Iowa State University on a scholarship.

“No one wants me as their doctor,” he laughs over drinks in Uptown Minneapolis. “I was going home on breaks and playing with friends. I realized halfway through school that I’d been lying to myself.”

Nichols still managed to graduate. He then followed his eventual wife to Chicago, where he immersed himself in the Windy City's storied music scene. Nichols discovered several jazz greats operating in various sub-genres, which helped him hone his own musical personality. In 2005, he returned home to Minneapolis to reestablish himself in the music community.

With the songs that would become Looking North in hand, Nichols booked eight hours at Creation Studio — right across the street from Icehouse, where he's played 145 nights in three years — in late 2015. He set a breakneck pace that day, recording all of his pieces on the first or second takes. 

“Music has always been a social endeavor for me,” Nichols says. “I like having big groups of friends around me, and even though this new album is really just me on the piano, I included my covers of songs from Dave King [“Lullaby For Sharks”] and the Pines [“Lonesome Tremolo Blues”] on Looking North.”

The rest of the album houses original tunes dedicated to Minnesota. His first single is the quietly elegant "We Live Here." He wrote “We Build and Destroy” for his two sons, explaining, “There’s a generative and destructive energy in children — a constant seesaw of building and knocking shit over.”

That theme runs throughout much of the record. While writing, Nichols, 36, would squirrel away pieces until his kids’ bedtime, then improvise into the night. He grew up listening to a variety of music, from classical to Phil Collins to Prince, and that fresh, improvisational mix of old and new informs Looking North.

“Some of the pieces, you can’t tell if it’s breaking up or forming,” he shares. “I always find that the best musical improvisers can simultaneously craft something old and make it seem brand new."

Although Looking North contains no lyrics, Nichols is an expert at telling a story with just his piano.

“Even when there are no lyrics, you should get drawn into a story that’s being told. That’s my first goal when I play. I love listening to Brazilian music, but I don’t speak Portuguese. It’s like Kurt Cobain — his words are not clear-cut and talking about walking down the street. I'm dealing with imagery and pacing and tone, I'm just doing it in the least literal way. I’m going to take you on a musical journey and from point A to point B, you’ll have this experience with me. If I did that, I did my job — whether or not you understood everything.”

Bryan Nichols

With: J.T. Bates and Chris Bates.

Where: Dakota Jazz Club.

When: 7 p.m. Tue., May 24.

Tickets: $7, more info here