A couple Sundays ago, a few friends and I wrapped up an excellent, sangria-soaked Spanish gastropub feast at Tertulia in the West Village of New York City and made way toward the 55 Bar, which has been serving up drinks and live music on 7th Avenue and Christopher Street since 1919. This particular evening’s offering was my old drinking buddy Nate Birkey, who — in between his cold vodkas at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens on Canon Perdido Street — honed his trumpeting and crooning chops in Santa Barbara before moving to New York City a few years back.
What ensued was a two-drink-minimum display of the Greenwich Village jazz scene at its finest, with Birkey busting out old songs and new to entertain those of us who’d stumbled into the low-ceilinged, cramped Prohibition-era dive bar. When my friends and I reflected on the top highlights of our whirlwind weekend through the city that really never does sleep, Birkey’s intimate concert ranked atop the list.
He brings his stuff back to Santa Barbara this coming Wednesday, March 28, when he hits the stage at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club with his longtime Santa Barbara collaborators Jamieson Trotter (piano), David Piltch (bass), and Peter Buck (drums). Birkey recently answered a few of my questions via email from his home in Harlem.
How long has it been since you moved to NYC? Tell us about your experiences as a musician there. I have been in New York for a little more than seven years — and it doesn’t seem that long at all. Sometimes I still feel like a stranger in this city. But I feel comfortable here now. It’s been a great experience.
Financially, it’s been very hard at times, but I’ve never been homeless or hungry. My first year here I never made a dime on a gig of my own, because I was always hiring good musicians to play with me and, of course, had to pay them. So oftentimes it was costing me to play. I can thankfully say that hasn’t happened in a while now, and I’ve had the opportunity to play with some of the finest musicians in the world.
Do you feel that your music has been enhanced with an extended spell in a big city? My music has been enhanced by my life and the work I put into it, and since the past seven years of my life have been in New York, then yes. It’s hard to say if I would now be a different musician had I stayed in Santa Barbara, but I do feel I’ve learned a lot from being around the many talented musicians in NYC.
Would you recommend other S.B. musicians follow in your footsteps, or are there similar opportunities closer to home? I think being in New York is a good thing to experience as a musician, even if only for a brief time — just to meet and hear the other musicians here. But it’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not the only place where one can have a creative and successful musical experience and career. Often it’s easier in smaller towns because there is less competition.
What can we expect from your upcoming show at SOhO? Good question. I don’t know. That’s the beauty of this music that we play: It’s always different, even if we were to play the exact same songs every night. And this particular group that I’ve put together for the SOhO show has never played together in this configuration.
I’ve played with Los Angeles-based pianist Jamieson Trotter since 1999 and he always surprises me. Bassist David Piltch is a Santa Barbara resident who plays all over the world with artists such as Holly Cole, KD Lang, and Bill Frisell, just to name a few. And L.A.-based drummer Peter Buck was a recent discovery for me. We played together for the first time last spring at SOhO and I fell in love with his playing immediately. [He’s a] very creative drummer. So I am looking forward to seeing what we create together on stage next week.
See what Nate Birkey, Jamieson Trotter, David Piltch, and Peter Buck create for yourself on Wednesday, March 28 at 8 p.m. at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). Call 805-962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for tickets. For more on Birkey, visit natebirkey.com.