Formerly from L.A., pianist Nick Manson has played with John Patitucci, Bud Shank, Steve Huffsteter, Deniece Williams and B.B. King. As a producer, writer, recording engineer and MIDI software designer, he's enjoyed success in just about every aspect of the music business. Oh, and he managed to pick up an Emmy along the way, too! Here's Nick's take on being a innovative musician in the 21st Century.
It's Every Aspect of What I Can Do
Who's This Guy, Nick Manson?
JK: You're fairly new to the Phoenix area, and have lived and worked in different cities. Do you think that's important for a musician?
NM: One of the great things for a musician about getting out of any town that you're from and going to L.A, New York, Nashville, or wherever, is that those are always melting-pot places for musicians. You get to meet a lot people from different backgrounds and get a wide exposure to musical concepts. That's how I got turned on to different music. When I went to Berklee, my friends came from all over.
Growing up in Seattle, I liked big bands, but my core experience was small-group stuff; that was kind of the only thing they played on KZOK on their Saturday jazz show, and it was some great stuff. To this day, four or five of those recordings still remain my favorites: they always used to play Charles Lloyd's Forest Flower, Tom Scott's Tom Cat, and Freddie Hubbard's Super Blue. They basically found tunes that worked in that format and didn't deviate from it very much throughout my high school years.
When I went to Berklee, all of the sudden I was exposed to other Freddie Hubbard records, and then guys that Freddie played with. People hipped me to Wayne Shorter's music outside of Weather Report, and then also I developed a taste for a lot of other things outside of jazz: Tomita, I became a big Rush fan, certain aspects of different styles.
JK: And while you were coming from a jazz background and had some of those influences, a lot of those artists from other genres had some influences from jazz, as well, so it's kind of a cross-pollination thing happening.
The other aspect of going to a big city and playing music is that it gives you that realistic, real-world experience. I have a lot of dear friends in Seattle, and some of them are great musicians, and they always had a lot of resentment towards L.A. guys because they got more gigs. But playing as well as they play, if they were to go there and do the things that are necessary, they would do fine. But they don't know, 'cause they didn't leave. They didn't want to leave and thought things would come to them. The mountain doesn't come to you, you have to go to the mountain.
That was kind of a drag; I noticed that it affected their attitudes, and because of that some of them didn't really end up having the quality of life they could have. And it's kind of based on nothing, because it's not based on experience. It's kind of based on "guessing."
JK: What you end up achieving is perhaps a fraction of what you could have accomplished if you had had some more types of input, more tools to work with.
NM: I agree, because basically what those folks ended up doing was more like, "I could have done that," or, "What if?" rather than coming from the experience of, "I did do that and I took away from it the things that were good and helped shape me musically, and left the other stuff behind."
JK: And in that context, even failure, for want of a better word, has benefits, too. Sometimes people will relocate to another city, say L.A., stick it out for a few years, and realize, "You know, this isn't really what I want." Or, "I'm tired of this," and then they come back and don't have any regrets about never having tried.
JK: Some of the most important lessons we learn in life are from obstacles that we come across that we can't surmount, and we learn that there's something else that helps us be better people because of it. People don't achieve their goals for all kinds of reasons: it doesn't have to be that they're not good enough or they didn't try hard enough. Sometimes there are other circumstances and you can still take away something from that experience and live a richer life, even if you go back from where you came originally.
NM: That's the thing: you don't know without the experience. You might even go and find out that that really isn't what you want to do.
My career actually has several distinct phases, even at this short juncture of only twenty-five years. When I first left Berklee, I was gung-ho to be a jazz pianist. I was known at the school as a jazz pianist and I was already getting calls to go play in New York, but I was firm about being a great arranger. I was going to go to L.A. and get into the studio scene and do music production, because I can do tracks like Quincy Jones—I feel I really have a talent for that. Of course, that style of music all went away, and I found out that a lot of the other music there didn't interest me, but I might not have ever known that if I hadn't tried.
I ended up developing a bunch of other technical skills and became a great engineer because of it, which has ended up benefitting me in the long run. As a result, with my label I not only produce my own music, I mix and master it myself, too.
JK: Why don't you talk about your studio and how you work via the Internet?
NM: Because of my background at Spectrasonics and being in the music software part of the business—all those years of doing the NAMM shows and trade shows—I met everybody in those fields and I have a ton of equipment. I got a lot of it gratis; they called it an industry comp. So I have a pretty large digital audio setup. Lots of sounds, it's all sample-based. I can pretty much do whatever kind of music anybody wants, and I enjoy it!
That's another thing that's so neat about having tried a bunch of different things, and why I don't like to think of anything as a failure; I like to think that you might try a lot of different things. Whenever we'd create one of these audio projects at Spectrasonics, we would then do demo music for it. It would get posted online with my name with all my info, so people started hunting me down on the Internet.
Then there were other people that knew me from doing session work in Los Angeles that moved away. There was a time when I met a lot guys from out of the country: Japanese guys, German guys, guys from the Holland/Switzerland area. They were in L.A. doing sessions and road things. We would bump and play on things together and we kept ties, so they would move back to their countries and find me on the Internet, "Oh, Nick's still there." So I would get these emails out of nowhere saying, "Hey, do you want to play on my project?"
That's another thing to remember: music, like everything else in life and business, is all about relationships. It really is. My career didn't start out by doing an "audition" and getting something. Everything started out from the fact that I went to Berklee and had so many friends from so many different parts of the country. Everybody remembers everybody because you had those experiences, those pinnacle moments in your life when it was really important. When I got the first call to be Denice Williams' music director, it was from my drummer friend who was playing with Kenny G, of all people. And then everything kind of went from there. As I went to different cities and worked in different music communities, it just kind of branched out into a larger base of people.
New York is my next thing. That was one of the reasons for going back and recording my new CD there. Ian Froman, the drummer on the CD, is a wonderful player. He plays with Dave Liebman and a whole bunch of people, he used to play with Brecker. He and I had my first trio at Berklee together, so we go back. We hadn't actually played together for 24 years, but we always kept in touch; that's the beautiful thing about the Internet. So my next thing is to start playing in New York and developing more relationships there.
The Internet session thing is really based off of relationships. For the most part, it's actually more satisfying than the early days in Seattle or L.A. doing jingle calls, because that stuff's very impersonal. So even if somebody's calling me to play on a pop track, even if it's smooth jazz or something like that, it's actually an enjoyable experience because I know the person. They're working with me because they want me, what I do, as opposed to "a keyboard player."
JK: Would you break that down a bit? How do you approach a project like that, from the moment someone contacts you and says,"I'd like you to play on my recording."
NM: It's highly personalized. I'm working with one artist right now out of Switzerland and he's totally free-license. He's a drummer and he sends me tracks of a basic thing that he's done, and then he says, "Do whatever you want." I might actually do multiple versions of it because I have so many different ways to approach it, then together we'll end up picking something.
There are some people who want you to do a specific stylized approach, or they specifically want a piano part, or a Fender Rhodes, or pads, or a synth solo. So it really depends. We usually dialog about it in the emails. Typically, with some folks you go back and forth two or three times.
I have an FTP server and basically you can send me an mp3, a wave file, or whatever—it doesn't matter—and then I'll just work on it with my system. That's the nice thing is that it doesn't matter what digital audio workstation you work in anymore. I'm fluent in them all because I had to be when I was with Spectrasonics. I know how to run Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Logic, Cubase, Reason, and a whole bunch of other ones that are made out of Europe that people don't even know about. The neat thing is that now everything is pretty standardized—you're gonna deal with high-level audio formats, either .wav or .aiff—so all I need is a track of whatever somebody wants me to play on.
I've had guys send me multiple tracks: they'll send me a click and maybe some sketched out stuff that they've done with a bass line. Another interesting thing is that some of my clients, because they were fans of mine at Spectrasonics, have all the products that I designed. So with some of them, I don't even have to do audio. I just do the MIDI and the patch information and just send that.
JK: That's wild...That's like just sending them math!
NM: (laughs) Right! Yeah, it kind of is.
The other service I'll do is mastering for guys online. They'll just upload all their final mixes to me and I'll master them. That's been a great experience. My friend David Hughes is a bassist for the Jazz Crusaders and David Benoit, and I just did his new CD about 6-7 months ago. It was a great experience for him because he sent me the tracks—I have a very nice listening environment—and I found that there was distortion on some of his tracks. So I helped him out and he re-tracked some things. It was real low-level stuff that you might not hear until it actually went to press.
JK: It sounds like some of your projects have virtually no boundaries where you've got complete creative freedom, and other ones have a tighter box they want you to work in.
NM: It's kind of neat. It's taken a long time to develop this career, but it's becoming more the former than the latter. More and more, as people become familiar with what I can do, they're more interested in that rather than when I was more of a session musician or arranger, where people were coming to me and saying, "Can you do Jay Graydon?" The big thing in the 80s was, "Can you play Rhodes like Richard Tee?"
There's that joke: A guy comes to town and it's like, "Who's this guy Nick Manson?" Then the next thing is like, "Can we hire Nick Manson?" Then the next thing is like, "Yeah, get Nick Manson!" Then the last thing is, "Who's Nick Manson?"
NM: It goes full circle.
JK: It sounds like what you're doing would be a lot more interesting and a lot more fun than just being a jazz pianist playing five nights a week somewhere. Not that that's a bad thing...
NM: Actually, you know what? I gotta be honest. I know for a fact that, at this juncture, that won't (shakes his head)...yeah...
JK: be as fulfilling?
NM: Because at that point, you're almost getting into playing literature again. And that's my whole problem—even though I read music and I come from a classical background—improvisation is my favorite thing. Creating. I know a lot of guys don't see it that way, it seems kind of seamless, but to me it's kind of a great divide, when you get over into pursuing creative things on all levels and being gung-ho for it. I really enjoy doing a lot of things.
JK: Somebody at an earlier stage of their career development, looking to do music either full-time, as a hobby or as a semi-profession, obviously they would need some technical skills as far as learning basic engineering, how to deal with the Internet, things like that.
NM: Right, and that's what I highly recommend now. I'm teaching over at Mesa Community College, and I tell a lot of the guys, you need to at least get a MySpace up, you need to know how to do that. You should look into Web development, you need to know that because when you play, you want to be able to put your calendar up, you want people to be able to hear your playing, because people don't listen to CDs anymore. I'm guilty of that. I'm really reticent, I don't use a CD player much, so if somebody sends me a CD, it might be several months before I get around to listening to it just because I'm kind of out of the habit. If I get an mp3, I'm real apt to just check it out right then and there.
I tell them, you should learn Reason or Abelton Live, and I met a few of the younger guys here in Phoenix that actually do that. I did a lecture at ASU for Mike Crotty on composition and inspiration, and of the 7-9 students that were in the composition program, almost half of them didn't ask me things like, "When's a good time to put muted trumpet with clarinet." They asked, "How do you sync Reason with ProTools?" because that's the world now for composition. Sure, there's always going to be a couple of guys that get to be specialized, but for most people, they need as many tools as possible to be able to get a job.
One of the things I talked about in this lecture series about composing is that all these things are like palettes. When I write, I might have a conception or a melody in my head for a long time before I might pencil it out. There are times I might compose at the piano, and other times I might compose at the sequencer just because of the types of sounds that I'm messing with will influence the composition. They're just tools, but they're good to have because without them you'll limit your opportunities.
JK: What things to you think are important as far as developing playing or compositional ability?
NM: As far as listening, it's important in your listening routine to balance between what you enjoy and stuff that you're struggling to understand. I think that's kind of essential. One pitfall I notice with a lot of younger players—and this goes back to when I was a kid— is that there are guys that could basically mimic some guy's bag to a "T." And the sad thing is that some of those guys got a lot of press when they were younger, but their careers didn't really pan out. They never really moved beyond a certain point.
On the other aspects of music, I'm a big theory guy. Find somebody that can teach you theory and don't stop with the first guy if his approach doesn't work. I'm real big on chord scales. For me, the chord scale method that I was taught at Berklee is just awesome. I found that it applies to everything, not just compositionally but improvisationally. But I notice when I talk to some people, they're like, "Oh, I don't like that, it's real 'heady.'" So find something else that works and don't just stop there.
Another thing I can't recommend enough is transcription. I don't do it so much anymore, but I was a big transcriber. I like to build models and take things apart, so I look at it as just an extension of that kind of curiosity. It's very interesting for me.
I did this with a lot of things. Of course, there were piano players that I transcribed, but as I got older and went into college, there was a whole phase were I got into transcribing drummers, because I just wanted to see how it looked. Consequently, I got so I could write drum parts really well. Then I went through a whole period where I was transcribing certain types of synth players, because their level of expression was really different from a pianist's. It was interesting to take that apart to see how they achieved their sound.
I also liked to transcribe orchestral music. There was a Prokofiev symphony, I really liked the way it sounded. Instead of going out and getting the score, I decided to transcribe a section of it just because, I don't know, there was something in the process of pulling it apart and seeing it. "Wow, so that's why it works! The clarinets and the woodwinds are playing a D triad at the same time the brass are playing a G minor triad. That's why it has that sound."
JK: There's no substitute for spending some serious time in deep thought about what's going on, where you get inside the music instead of treating it superficially.
NM: The other thing I recommend that helps you out as a composer and an improviser is to understand song form. That's the one thing I see even with guys that have a great technical proficiency: they can't see a five minute piece in three or four small blocks. It's got a real linear aspect for them and really bogs down their performance level, and can sometimes make it a drag to work with them. They're managing so much, comparatively. So I really recommend learning and understanding song forms.
JK: One thing that's always surprised me is that it's a relative minority of musicians that actually bother to write or arrange. I almost feel cheated in a sense because, knowing how great some of these musicians are, I'll never get to hear what would come out of them compositionally if they actually spent some time writing. It's kind of like transcribing in that it forces you to look on the inside of music. When I was growing up, I never felt like I was ever pushed to write, although I ended up trying it anyway. Of course, I understand that not everybody's gift is writing—just as not all composers are great instrumentalists—but it seems like you could learn so much about yourself and about music if you spent some time doing that.
NM: As an improviser I'm affected greatly by it. One of the things I've come to realize is when I sit down at the piano in even just a duo or trio setting, the way a lot of guys think about improvising, the concept is they're thinking about the lines they're gonna blow. They're really concerned about playing with a great feel and playing something hip, but that's kind of it. And the thing I've come to realize from composition and tearing things apart as an arranger, is that it's every aspect of what I can do with my instrument within that setting that is improvising. So some of that might mean not playing at a certain point, or playing a certain type of thing at a another point. I won't just go in and blow whatever. I've seen some really great, famous guys that are kind of guilty of that.
JK: They're just trying to fill space.
NM: Yeah, it's just that the gig experience is kind of like a "Live Aebersold."
NM: You know what I mean? Yeah, I've never been much for that approach. Even when I sit down to play a tune—say, Stella by Starlight—I'm thinking about an introduction, how to create something that feels like you're nearing two-thirds of the way through this, and I'm always thinking about how to end it, and searching for something other than the traditional tag, and then trying to communicate that to the other players.
But that's the great thing, being a composer/arranger, if you take those skills and let that cross over into your playing aspect, it's a wonderful thing.
JK: Can you think of one or two seminal events that made a fantastic imprint upon you: either a great inspiration, an exceptional teacher, concert, etc.?
NM: I was very fortunate when I was in high school stage band up in Washington. During a fifteen year period, that particular high school had the best program in the state. It was a competition big band and the band director was amazing, especially with brass. I learned a lot about how to balance brass and woods from his example.
JK: What was his name?
NM: Ed Peterson. So that was an amazing experience, it was just really musical. Then I had a really great improv teacher, a guy named Dave Press. He was a bassist. He actually played bass with Monte Alexander in the 60s. He was a killer piano player. He has a touch like Bill Evans. He couldn't play a lot of fast stuff but he could do the Bill Evans comp vibe and stuff. So that was really big. Another great experience was that I went to the Kenton clinics in Sacramento during the 70s, and those were just awesome. Again, why? Because there were people from all over the West Coast at them. It's pretty hilarious now, because some of the guys I play with now in L.A., we realized later on- like my buddy Dave Tull, who plays with Chuck Mangione-it's like, "We were at that same clinic."
In more recent years, I'd have to attribute largely my musical experience with Roby Duke as being just phenomenal. After I finished college, when I first started working with Roby, my parents still subsidized me financially, because I was still struggling. My dad always felt like it was a continuing education process, getting to work with him. And it was and I learned a lot about everything in music from Roby. People don't realize, he had many phases to him: he was a wonderful singer, incredible songwriter, but he was also an engineer and producer. He could do everything with all the technology. He was into all the samplers and sequencing stuff long before a lot of people were. And then in the last years of his life he kind of reinvented himself in becoming this world-class fingerstyle guitar player. So to this day, that's still one of the biggest experiences for me.
And the other one is my musical relationship with Andy Suzuki. Andy Suzuki and I went to the same high school, so we've playing together for something like 27 years now. And the thing that's really great is that what we grew up listening to in music is very, very similar. We have the same records, we played the same things. So it's a always a gas playing with him because we do all sorts of little things when we play together to entertain each other throughout. It's funny because it's stuff that a lot of people won't get. Like Andy will make me laugh by quoting something that Joe Farrell played on a Chick Corea record, which is not a big deal for the audience as much as somebody going "Mona Lisa," or something else, right? But for me it's a gas, because I'm like, "Oh, yeah, I remember that." Or we'll do certain things in our arrangements that's like, "Oh, yeah, that's from a Weather Report kind of vibe."
So I've been fortunate. Playing with Pattituci, of course, is great. That's been real inspiring of late.
▸Saturday Night Live with Corrine Bailey Rae
▸Kim Richmond Concert Jazz Orchestra
▸Mickey Dolenz (The Monkees)
Ocassionally, to select students (all instruments) $37.50 per 1/2 hour.
Acoustic Piano, Fender Rhodes Suitcase Electric Piano, Wurlitzer 200A Electronic Piano.
Scarbee, Spectrasonics, Native Instruments, GForce, to name a few.
Genelec, for use in the studio
▸The most lucrative gigs were playing Microsoft's after-work parties in the early to mid '90s. Silly money...
▸The most fun & fulfilling gigs were anything with Andy Suzuki, Dean Taba, Kendall Kay, Mark Ivester, Clipper Anderson, Roby Duke and John Patitucci.
Everything! Some of my favorites:
▸Keith Jarrett - My Song
▸Don Grolnick - Hearts & Numbers
▸John Patitucci - Line By Line
▸Weather Report - Heavy Weather
▸Bill Evans - Affinity
▸Clare Fischer - Thesaurus
▸Yellowjackets - Four Corners
▸Chick Corea - Light As A Feather
▸Victor Feldman - Your Smile
▸Herbie Hancock - The Prisoner
▸Monty Alexander - Facets
▸John Coltrane - Coltrane's Sound
▸Scales for Jazz Improvisation by Dan Haerle, Miami: Published by Alfred Publishing, 1975. [ISBN 9780898987058]
▸The Jazz Language: A Theory Text for Jazz Composition and Improvisation by Dan Haerle, Miami: Published by Alfred Publishing, 1980. [ISBN 9780760400142]
▸Jazz/Rock Voicings for the Contemporary Keyboard Player by Dan Haerle, Miami: Published by Alfred Publishing, 1974. [ISBN 9780769233253]