Thirteen years ago this month, Nate Birkey took his trumpet and moved from Santa Barbara to New York City, where he went all in on a life of jazz. “That was a defining moment,” said Birkey, who’s lived there ever since, teaching music at private school during the day and playing jazz clubs around the city at night.
Though he now gigs a few times a month rather than five nights a week like he once did, Birkey still records albums, and he returns to Santa Barbara on January 3, 2018, to release his 10th full-length effort, Rome. Recorded primarily over two half-day sessions in March while he was in the Italian capital, the album is loaded with Birkey’s trademark soft and clean yet penetrating and pensive jazz, with occasional flashes of exuberance, as relayed through four original songs and seven renditions of Italian standards, including the theme song for film Cinema Paradiso.
“They really appreciate jazz — not that Americans don’t — but maybe they do a little bit there more than here,” said Birkey of Italy, where he’s been playing almost every year since 2006. “There’s great appreciation now, but going back, Chet Baker used to go to Italy and ended up living there. That was always his favorite place to go because he was so appreciated and loved by the Italians.”
The album, which features Italian musicians Roberto Tarenzi, Luca Bulgarelli, Alessandro Marzi, and Manuel Magrini, came together when Marzi offered up free studio time in Rome to Birkey during his spring 2017 tour. “I was like, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” said Birkey. “So I scrambled to write four tunes, and then I quickly thought of other songs that I thought would fit this Italian vibe for the record, a little bit romantic.”
Beyond that, there was no prep. “It was very much spontaneous, organic, on-the-fly, with no rehearsal,” said Birkey, who was picked up by Marzi at the train station and taken right to the studio. “I met the piano player and the bass player and said, ‘Here’s the music. Press the record button, and let’s go.’”
They worked for about five hours the first day and five hours the next, played a concert that night, and then Birkey flew home. “It was really fast, but I think it came out better that way because there were no preconceptions, there was no overthinking — it was just, let’s play and see what happens,” said Birkey, who did return in the summer to finalize some parts. “We had to be very in tune to each other and responsive, which is how jazz should be anyway. In this case, it was an even more heightened state of awareness, not knowing what’s gonna happen next. It gives it a very organic sound.”
On the heels of a couple of album-release shows in New York and Pennsylvania, Birkey will hit Denver in his home state of Colorado before his California trip, and then he returns this spring to Italy, where he’s likely to sell the most of his new release. “Most people are just streaming music right now, but outside of the United States, I sell a lot of CDs,” said Birkey. “Like in Italy this last time, I took 50 with me, thinking I’d never sell that many, but I was sold out by the second concert. I had nothing left, and I had a 10-day tour. I should have brought a couple hundred. The same thing happened to me when we went to Russia a few years ago. I sold out of all the CDs I had in the first night there.”
No matter the sales, though, Birkey loves the full-length album format. “I like creating a concept when I’m doing an album,” he said. “The idea of just recording a single and putting it up on iTunes is not very appealing to me.”
As for the state of jazz in the United States, Birkey believes it is strong. “I don’t think jazz is going anywhere,” Birkey explained over the phone last week, as snow started to fall on the streets of New York and a student started tinkering with a horn in the background. “New York is maybe not a great representation of the rest of the country, but there’s a lot of young people here playing jazz. It’s exciting to see. They’re also mixing modern music and deejay stuff with jazz, and fusing different styles of music together. It’s pretty interesting.”
Nate Birkey will be joined by saxophonist Tom Buckner, pianist Jamieson Trotter, bassist Jim Connolly, and drummer Peter Buck to release his album Rome (Household Ink Records) at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Wednesday, January 3, 2018, and at Squashed Grapes (2351 E. Main St., Ventura) on January 4. See natebirkey.com.