SHORT AND SWEET: WMSE TALKS TO NELSON DEVEREAUX
POSTED:: November 1, 2018
Interviews, Short And Sweet (Q&A's)
FILED UNDER:: Interviews, Short And Sweet (Q&A's)
Wisconsin-born saxophonist, Nelson Devereaux migrated north to (and currently resides in) Minneapolis, yet manages to keep strong ties to his hometown of Milwaukee. Devereaux, currently a teacher and working musician (having spent time most-recently in Bon Iver’s band, collaborating with Har Mar Superstar and sprinkling his sax skills into various sets at the Eaux Claires festival), is getting set to release his latest collection of songs, BAD WATER with a dual-city release weekend. His Milwaukee event is set for the Best Place on Sunday, November 11th with Caley Conway and Paper Holland. Devereaux took some time to talk about his roots, his outlook as a jazz educator and the current state of his musical moods as he gets ready to share BAD WATER with the world.
You studied jazz and had some pretty notable musicians. Who was your favorite teacher that you clicked with?
Specifically, on saxophone I really clicked with Kim Richmond (LA) when I was taking lessons from him. He teaches a jazz workshop once a year, located in Rhinelander, a town in northern Wisconsin where a lot of my relatives are from, so that was a strange coincidence and also pretty amazing. The workshop (“The Northwoods Jazz Camp”) is really awesome (it still happens every year); any ability level can participate and there are always some insane musicians from around the country on the faculty.
I met Kim when I was 18 or 19, and his concept was so diverse and versatile. It really resonated with me. He’s a real-deal LA saxophonist; can read anything and improvise in any style. A master of his instrument, he was someone I could model myself after. We would share patterns with each other and I think he enjoyed the lessons as much as I did! He always believed in me and I’ve gone out to LA a couple of times to see him over the years. When Bon [Iver] played the Hollywood Bowl, I made sure he came and I’m pretty sure he enjoyed himself.
I also have to mention the great saxophonist John High, who taught at Longfellow Middle School and Rob and Robin Engl that taught at Wauwatosa East High School. Between those four teachers, I had the foundation for everything I am doing today, and I am so grateful to have worked with them. Truly phenomenal educators and musicians.
As a teacher yourself, do you emulate any curriculums you experienced or did you re-write your teaching plans when you first started out? Do you teach all age ranges and levels?
As a teacher, I try to meet the student where they are initially and take them from there. The elements of posture and positioning, breath control, technique all come into play immediately within the first lesson, as do specific questions regarding the gear the student is using. Once this is sorted out, we are ready to begin.
Because I studied in both of the classical and jazz idioms, I integrate both styles into the lessons that I teach. Each student is different and might have specific goals/needs so the balance between classical and jazz is a bit different every time. I mainly teach saxophone, flute, and clarinet and I teach all ages; from very young to older than myself.
It’s important to remember that music is music and when applied to different instruments, one can realize that what might be beneficial on one, is actually beneficial on another. For this reason, I have students learn the Cycle Of Fourths right away, as it is one of the most critical theoretical elements in western music. Through patterns like the Cycle Of Fourths, we are able to identify intervals and harmonic tendencies which are applicable not only to a specific instrument but to music as a whole.
These days, I have been having fun preparing a couple of students for college auditions: playing classical repertoire as well as having many jazz standards memorized plus strong improvisation/theory skills. It’s a trip all around, and I have found that teaching is a very zen and natural thing for me!
Tell us about this new album (BAD WATER) – where was its genesis? What are the main themes? Who did the recording and producing?
The inspiration for BAD WATER came from a few different sources. The main theme of the record is that the things that you love (people, places, things) can transcend the physical realm in positive and negative ways, which, in itself, is fairly broad. In short, what you love can kill you. This record mainly focuses on the negative side (the breaking down), while trying to capture a sense of wonderment; as if you are watching everything unfold around you but can do nothing to stop it. I feel like this a lot in my own life – there’s a certain beauty within the madness. Throughout my career I have always seemed to push myself to the edge as far as the physicality of my instrument and the things that I undertake. I keep asking, how can I get through it this time? I can’t help it, although I try.
This main theme (above) is what I personally extracted from the original inspiration found in the deep winter of February 2017, during back and forth trips from Minneapolis to Milwaukee. Seemingly random, born out of a YouTube documentary: Professional Freediving.
I have always been fascinated by the ocean but what could bring people to enjoy plunging to record depths with the use of a guide-line and a weight? Instinct tells me it’s the same thing that keeps me beating myself up playing music. So, in a sense each song focuses on not only the tangible, word-oriented explanation of this concept, but also specific feelings represented by some of the shorter pieces. What does it feel like to have what you love the most tear you apart? I find a lot of inspiration from film and this record is intended to be listened to from start to finish in one sitting, then revisited. If people did that, they’d have a better idea of what exactly I’m going for. Take the ride.
What is your favorite song from BAD WATER and why?
My favorite song from BAD WATER is “TORN UP”. There was a period of time where every time I listened to it, I would cry. The section at the end, where Paul plays drums over Max’s bass line and the symphony of flutes and soprano saxophone is some of my favorite music I’ve ever heard. Just the rawness of it. The beginning of that section features samples of my mom saying “keep going” (can you hear it?) and someone very close to me and myself singing together. Personally, it’s just a culmination of the last couple of years in a physical form and it’s very powerful to me, I almost can’t believe that we got so close to emulating those experiences on a track. Life has ups and downs and they’re all in there.
You have spent a great deal of time involved in others’ music – namely New Sound Underground, Courageous Endeavors, the Adam Meckler Orchestra as well as touring with Har Mar Superstar, Bon Iver and playing alongside This Is the Kit for Eaux Claires. How do you stay connected as a hired gun when you are also focused on teaching and your own music? What collaboration (so far) has taught you the most (and influenced your own music)?
Goodness. This is a tough one. Where each collaboration begins, there are always areas of your life that need to adjust. I am lucky to have the Internet to help me stay on top of the things that I am doing, however it can be a challenge to manage myself. I guess nowadays the touring work that I do works itself out a few days before show time. For example, on Monday I’ll go out to San Francisco to play with the Mild High Club. I have worked on my parts and arranged some music for them on horns, so we’ll be able to see how that all works out at that time. In this regard, there isn’t a whole lot of time needed to commit to groups on a regular basis now, you stay ahead of the shows one by one, make sure you have your parts nailed and show up with a good attitude. In the meantime, when I am in Minneapolis, I am basically split between teaching mode and normal-Nelson mode which is when I’d work on my own stuff. It never really stops, you know? Just attention focusing and re-focusing itself on the next project. I do know that I need a vacation but right after I return I’ll release the record and hit the East and West Coasts with Har Mar, so I’m looking at mid-December…we’ll see.
As for the collaboration that influences me the most, it’s definitely with my brother Max; he and I are both freakishly similar and different at the same time. He inspires me so much and I can only hope that I do the same thing to him. He’s seen me through my toughest times and my strongest victories. I still want to make a proper duo record with him (so if he’s reading this, I’m serious, man).
Tell us about the show in Milwaukee – you are originally from here! What does Milwaukee mean to you?
For the show on the 11th at Best Place, it’s basically about getting friends together to celebrate the record. The for-real “Style Band” is playing that night which is what I call the group when my brother Max and Mike Sodnik play with me. Along with them, we’ll have Miguel Hurtado on drums (from Courageous Endeavors and CATSAX), Ethan Elseth on guitar, Jake Baldwin on trumpet (Ethan and Jake also play in Har Mar Superstar), Jenna Rades on bass and Andres Crovetti on vibraphone (Jenna and Andres both live in Milwaukee). We’ll play some songs that we’ve never played before from BAD WATER and I’ll likely play newer material that I have written this fall, mixed in with some classic songs from my other records. It’s a really cool night because it’s the second of two releases, the first of which is in Minneapolis the night before with the same bands on each bill.
Caley Conway and I met in fourth grade and went all the way through high school together so it’s great to come full circle sharing these shows now that we’re real adult humans. Paper Holland and my group did a show at Linneman’s in March and it went really well, I think. Better than either band thought, so we figured we should keep playing shows together. Those guys are so, so, so great and I love working with them, they were instrumental to making the Milwaukee show happen in the first place. Good music, good people, I love how much material they create together, and their artistic vision.
As far as what Milwaukee means to me, it means an awful lot. My whole family lives there and I find that I am often torn between living in Minneapolis or Milwaukee. I have my reasons for being up here, but a huge piece of my heart will always be in Milwaukee. I have always thought I’d end up back there but it just hasn’t happened yet. I just love the vibe, and I try to visit often. I live for nostalgia and coming back is always extremely inspiring for me; every time it hits me like a ton of bricks. The vibe in the fall is the absolute best so I am looking forward to some late-night hangs in the next few weeks. Maybe we’ll hit Mayfair mall and wander around, or Moda 3 in the third ward, Enderis Park, or a chillll walk by the lake. Who knows? I feel like wherever I am in the world that I’ll always have a home there and I want to make Milwaukee proud.
If we can’t attend the show at Best Place on the 11th, where can we find your music?
If you can’t make the show on the 11th I would recommend just finding me on social media for info. I don’t post a ton anymore but I’ll throw some links out there for the new record. The whole thing will be up on 37d03d, Bandcamp, and basically wherever you listen to music on the 10th when we play Minneapolis. Definitely support 37d03d if you can, it’s a cool platform that is giving a voice to many artists that might you might not otherwise hear of. We will have physical CD’s (a first for my own records) at the show so if you come, you can pick one of those up for your 6-CD changer.
Much love. <3