He may seem young to be a “Great Nostalgist,” but Danny Fox has a new CD out that proves he has all the nuance and patience of many years of experience that belie his age. With his trio, there are evident influences of classical with the occasional sprinklings of country, bluegrass and even Jewish liturgical music.
The curiously named “Cookie Puss Prize” on his new CD is an impressive and painterly ballad, complete with a sweet hook from the jump. Calling it “pretty” or even “floral” doesn’t do it justice. Another great name – “Emotional Baggage Carousel” – leads with a piano telling its story: some gloriously bright arpeggios, some dark clouds approaching, and a spectrum of moods that offer what’s at the very heart of the universal relationship.
So technically beautiful and confidently executed, the music from Danny Fox Trio is delightfully different and exceedingly listenable.
When did you learn piano and was it a chore to practice?
I started playing around fifth grade but it was never a chore because my parents were laid back and my first teacher was open to anything I wanted to play: the theme from “Cheers,” “Stairway to Heaven,” the intro to Van Halen’s “Right Now,” etc.
What classical masters and jazz icons inspire you?
It’s hard to point to only a few but some of my favorite composers are Ravel, Beethoven, Scriabin, Brahms, Messiaen, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
What was the most useful takeaway from your music education at Harvard?
I actually didn’t major in music aside from one valuable course on Bach. I was a psychology major and due to the limited jazz performance opportunities on campus, I had to organize my own gigs through which I started writing.
It was a formative time for me. I learned you have to seek out chances to play the music that’s important to you.
Did you set out to buck convention in composition?
No. Shortly after I moved back to NYC, I was writing for a larger group and after that dissolved, I decided to experiment with combining the horn and piano parts into one piano part to adapt for the trio format. I thought it sounded cool and different.
I also was drawn to longer forms and creative ways to use the traditionally supporting roles of bass and drums in a way that was more compositional.
What’s the biggest surprise to you about the industry?
Maybe just how vast the music world is. There are countless scenes/genres and amazing musicians everywhere you go.
When you compose, is it harmony or melody first…?
It can be different each time. Often it’s a little riff I stumble upon (e.g., the opening piano figure of “Adult Joe” or “Old Wash World”). Or a theme that I try to weave through the piece (e.g., the three-note motif on “Fat Frog”). I almost never write a melody by itself without some basic idea of a harmonic mood, even if I don’t have the exact chords yet.
Sometimes it is actually just a rhythmic figure that generates the piece. On “All Tolled” from our second album “Wide Eyed,” the opening drum groove was something I tapped on my desk with a pencil.
What do you hope audiences take from your performances?
Honestly, as intricate or difficult as the music can sometimes sound, I just hope that it sounds good to people. And that the closeness and intensity with which we play can also be inviting and inclusive of the audience.
Why did you form your band in 2008 and why choose these musicians?
The piano trio is such a classic jazz format and after mainly playing in groups with horn players, I was ready to give it a try.
I had played with our bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest when we were both in Boston and always had a strong musical connection. Chris brings so much musicality to everything he plays: every note is in service of the music and overall vibe of the group. He strikes the perfect balance between laying down a solid groove and playing with rhythmic and harmonic adventurousness, always listening deeply and interacting with what’s happening around him.
I met our drummer Max Goldman shortly after I moved back to NYC and we formed the trio soon after. He is an incredibly versatile drummer and his embracing of many styles gives him a personal sound on the drums. Like Chris, he focuses on how his playing can contribute to the composition, searching for a certain beat or feel to fit the mood of the song.
Both Max and Chris play a huge role in shaping the material I write. Our approach has been to workshop each piece together, experimenting with forms, ideas for improvisation, dividing up parts, etc. until we’ve crafted it into an arrangement together. This collaborative process results in music that bears the stamp of the entire band and not just my personal writing style.
If you were to add another instrumentalist, what would it be?
I’m not sure actually. This group has a very specific sound and I don’t think about changing it. It would be interesting to hear how it would change with other colors. At some point, I’d like to write for a larger group again.
When was the CD “Wide-Eyed” released and how stylistically would you say it differs from your new CD “The Great Nostalgist”?
“Wide Eyed” was released in 2014. “The Great Nostalgist” is similar sound-wise but hopefully shows our group evolving and continuing to look for new approaches to the piano trio format, whether in composition, improvisation or arrangement.
The video for “Sterling” is strangely offbeat and also kind of funny. Why were you drawn to this imagery?
Meghan Johnson is an amazing video artist who conceived of that video for us. I don’t recall what led her to use the balls of red string but I might have told her about how we try to thread themes through different sections of our songs. The video was shot at the Brooklyn Navy Yard where our drummer Max had a practice space.
Is there a country influence in “Jewish Cowboy”?
I grew up listening to a lot of bluegrass and folk because my dad loves that music. I listen to even more these days and play some amateur banjo.
I also have taken to transcribing bluegrass and country guitar lines (e.g., Doc Watson, Tony Rice, James Burton) and so it naturally creeps into my writing. The song, which merges the traditional minor key sound of Jewish music with the spirit of a hootenanny, is from a Simpsons episode where Dustin Hoffman guest stars as a Jewish substitute teacher who shows up to class one day in a cowboy outfit. The piece is dedicated to my friend Josh Geller who is the closest thing to a Jewish cowboy that I know.
Talk about producing “The Great Nostalgist.” What’s the title about?
I had been thinking a lot about nostalgia during the time I was cleaning out my old childhood bedroom. I came across all these sentimental old possessions and was overwhelmed by the memories rushing back. The Catskills house where we recorded is over 100 years old and full of all kinds of old gear (except for the cheese grater I had the owner buy so I could properly prepare dinner) so there is a feeling of nostalgia and history there as well.
Why did you all decide on a bare-bones method: no headphones, overdubs, etc.?
Our friend Tyler Wood, who recorded my first album back in 2002 when we were at Harvard together, had been working at Old Soul Studio and thought it would be a great setting for us. We wanted to try recording an album the way it used to be done: with everyone in the same room and no overdubs. Our music is suited to intimate spaces and this setup was conducive to a warm, inviting sound.
“Adult Joe” – what would you say about the unique role of percussion in this song (complex, jumpy rhythms; almost dissonant)?
My favorite thing on this track is how Max colors the opening bass melody and piano riff with perfectly timed cymbal scrapes. I told him originally to “play some weird stuff” during the introduction. He tries different approaches but the one we captured on the record has a sense of mystery that I love.
Why did you choose Mezzrow in NYC for the official release of the CD?
We like the intimate vibe of Mezzrow. It’s a piano-centered bar that’s the sister club to the old standby Small’s across the street.
The song names show your funny side (“Theme for Gloomy Bear” and so on). Is this part of your overall sensibility?
I’m not sure that I’d call it humor but there’s definitely a playfulness to the music. While the music can sound serious, there’s also a willingness to venture into new terrain that might seem a little wacky. We are all big jokers, so I’d imagine that comes across.
What type of harmonies or intervals do you think adds most interest or tension?
I’m drawn to darker harmonies in general which might be my Jewish background (we write in minor keys except when writing all the Christmas hits). I’m interested in dissonance and how it can be made to sound beautiful.
What do you like most about the NYC jazz scene?
The sheer number of amazing musicians. It’s overwhelming, really.
What type of club or concert hall do you dig?
I love playing small intimate rooms, especially for this music. It has a chamber music kind of feel so it works best in these kinds of spaces.
My favorite spots to play in NYC are Bar LunÁtico, Sunny’s, Barbes, Small’s and Mezzrow.
Do you think jazz is evolving into more fragmented genres; or do genres not matter anymore?
I don’t think genre matters too much. When people ask what kind of music we play, I say jazz. But I wish I didn’t have to describe it. The music is the result of a strong background in jazz but also a love of many other kinds of music.
I think the scene today very much embraces lots of influences, which is what will keep the music from becoming stale.
Where will you perform the new CD this year?
We just had an album release show on January 22nd at Mezzrow in NYC and are playing for the first time in California in February.
What are your hopes for growing/improving?
I’d like to keep writing and finding time to rehearse the way we have been for ten years now. I’d love to find the group more opportunities to bring the music to wider audiences.
Anything in the works?
I think about writing again for larger groups, maybe even including a vocalist which would be something new for me. Also, I am busy with other groups around NYC, especially Tubby, which plays old New Orleans rock and roll.
For more information, visit www.dannyfoxmusic.com.