It’s been four years since Nate Birkey left Santa Barbara for New York City, and on Wednesday, August 27, he will be back in town to celebrate Almost Home, his fifth album on the Household Ink label. Birkey has a bold, inventive sound on trumpet and a fascinating, understated way with a lyric as a singer. His trademark West Coast cool approach to the art of jazz has won him many well-deserved comparisons to the great Chet Baker, but Birkey has now reached the point where he ought to be appreciated for who he is all on his own. As S.B. musician and jazz expert Joe Woodard puts it, Birkey has “honed his craft more and more, never just settling for whatever level he was at in a given moment.”
I recently spoke with Birkey from his home on New York’s Upper West Side.
Almost Home sounds great. Tell me about what it was like to put it together. I’m lucky to have the musicians that I do, and I have been traveling a lot this summer. The official release for the CD was in July, and since then I have been in Italy with Gerald Clayton, and I have played some gigs in New York as well. It was great to get the full European reception right after putting out the record-as in, playing for 500 people, rather than 50.
How did you find this band [Sal Giorgianni, tenor sax and flute; Jim Ridl, piano; Tony Marino, bass; Marko Marcinko, drums; Vic Juris, guitar]? When I got to New York four years ago, I knew no one, so when I got my first gig I called my friend Mike Clark, who had been the drummer in The Headhunters. I told him I needed a whole group, and 15 minutes later he called me back and said, “Here’s who I’ve got for you.” Then he named Tony Marino and Marko Marcinko, who were with Dave Liebman at the time, and a pianist who had been with Sonny Rollins. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was with a world-class band and my friend put it together for me with a couple of calls. Vic Juris had also played guitar with Liebman, so that’s how he got involved. And Jim Ridl was with Pat Martino for years, so he was a really deep player and I immediately responded to what he was doing.
The third song on Almost Home is an original called “Falling,” and it reminds me a lot of Miles Davis, especially his soundtracks. Was that intentional? Yes, thanks for noticing that. I love that cinematic period of Miles Davis, like the work he did on Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows. Without imitating, I was trying for that feeling, with the simple melody that somehow comes out all moody through the horn.
You got it. Very impressive. On the title track, the tempo is faster and the feeling is different. The composition “Almost Home” came out of my upbringing in the church. The title refers not just to my roots, but also to the idea of the prodigal son coming home. The rhythm on that track comes from my interpretation of the music of New Orleans, and that’s another meaning that the piece has for me-it’s an homage to the homecomings of the people affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Do you have fun with your singing? I love to sing, but I don’t necessarily think of myself as a singer. The other day someone close to the band-Marko Marcinko’s girlfriend, actually-said something funny to me about it. She named a couple of mutual friends who are very seriously focused on their voices as their main instrument, and then she said, “They’re singers; you just happen to sing.” I hope that what comes through when I “happen to sing” is some sincerity and real feeling. I have to love the song in order to sing it, and when I do, I try not to mess with it.
What’s next for Nate Birkey? I am always trying to figure out who I am, and what I am trying to become. To me that’s the core of being human-to always think about what you are becoming. Project-wise, I’d love to get a shot at scoring a feature film. I feel like I am ready for that.
Nate Birkey will appear on Wednesday, August 27, at 8 p.m. at SOhO with his West Coast band, which includes Jamieson Trotter, piano; Justin Claveria, sax; Jim Connolly, bass; and Todd Wolf, drums. Almost Home (Household Ink) is available in stores and on iTunes now. For more information on the show, call 962-2776 or visit sohosb.com.