Do the Math: “Plus One” Adds up to Big, Bold, Beautiful – with Dan Pugach

Dan Pugach featured

The sun beats down hard and hot on a busy street in Brooklyn as a fair with crazy energy injects music into everybody within earshot. This is the feel captured by “Brooklyn Blues” on the recent CD called “Plus One” by the Dan Pugach Nonet. The ensemble serves up a steamy, raucous sound with articulated rhythms, horns that sizzle, saxes that know how and when to push a groove, and a trombone that sasses you up and down and all around. All nine instrumentalists (plus one, that would be the vocalist) empty their pockets to give all they’ve got.

“Jolene” is a real surprise; an intro of sweet, deep chamber music heralds Nicole who takes charge and tells the story. A classic song but you’ve never heard it like this. “Love Dance” starts with a faint echo reminiscent of Earth, Wind & Fire. When the vocals slide in, it’s a smooth and lovely love song that has a sultry beat. Percussionist Dan Pugach explains how they got here.

Most important takeaway from your formal music education?

Funny, I spent the most time on this question and can’t write something I’m 100% honest about. I learned a lot of things from different schools at different times of my life. Maybe the fact that I’m still a musician is the most important takeaway?

What did your informal education consist of?

I had to learn how to talk to an audience (still am), how to book gigs (still am), how to deal with rejection (got over it), how to tour and how to plan goals. I don’t remember any harmony teacher talking about that stuff in college.

Most misunderstood thing about the percussion in jazz?

That it controls the time or holds the beat for anyone else. Such a funny concept. We are all sharing the beat and interpreting it. Together. That’s the beauty. There’s nobody in charge of time. 

What are the specific challenges in working for a nonet, as opposed to a smaller group?

It’s more expensive to feed a nonet than a trio. Traveling and lodging is somewhat trickier but all in all it’s more manageable than people might think. 

I have been working with the same musicians on this project so there is a sense of loyalty on both sides which makes it easy to rehearse and perform. 

How would you describe your style?

It’s best described as a hybrid of jazz with groove and world influences; or maybe a mini groove big band with jazz sensibility.

Which drummers and other instrumentalists have influenced you?

Roy Haynes, Jack deJohnette and Tony Williams had the most impact on me. Tony with Miles, Jack with Brecker and Keith Jarrett and Roy with pretty much everyone. 

The first album that really blew my mind was Chick Corea’s “Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.” Later on I learned to free up from Terri-Lyne Carrington and to get a stronger sense of meters and subdivision from Ari Hoenig.

I have listened to so many different styles of music throughout the years that I’m sure it all helped in shaping who I am today. Definitely a lot of Brazilian composers, jazz orchestras, rock bands, classical…you name it.

How do you create new rhythms?

My solos can be derived from different sources depending on the tune. They can be made of one rhythmic idea (cell) that I develop over a vamp, or it can be a through-composed story that is made of a few ideas that develop over the song form.

A drum solo should serve a purpose in the arc of the tune and sometimes the goal is to just change the mood by playing insane stuff. I limit my solos to one or two per concert to keep them relevant. I love imposing odd groupings one top of whatever meter we’re in. If the vamp is in 9/8 I’ll play groupings of 5’s and 7’s in 16th notes, and triplets on the duple side of the 9/8 or on the dotted side of it (sounds like a faster 6/4). 

Your latest CD- what are you most excited about it?

A mean club promoter once told me that I don’t exist if I don’t have an album out. So I’m really excited to finally exist! I love how it came out and I’m proud of the cohesiveness of it as a whole. I never get bored from it despite the fact that I’m playing on it!

What tracks took the most work?

Good question. Everyone pretty much nailed every take on both sessions including Nicole singing everything LIVE with the band. No overdubs!

The only one that I lost sleep over was “Belo’s Bellow.” We did three takes of it in August 2016 and I couldn’t figure out why I hate it. I tried overdubbing the Fender Rhodes later and it still sounded dead. Then we had a gig somewhere and I decided to write that little shout chorus after the alto solo and to speed up the tempo a little bit and that fixed it. Recording it again in March 2017 was a breeze. It’s amazing how sometimes the best musicians can only do so much. The arrangement was just bad.

“Plus One” is a reference to…?

Plus One is Nicole. Nicole is my plus one. She’s also the Nonet’s plus one as she’s the guest vocalist on every show. During the final weeks of producing this album and coming up with a name for it, Nicole and I were planning our wedding. (Well, she was planning our wedding and I helped. Sometimes.) The funny thing was that we had so many guests (225!) that we had to tell many of our musician friends NO PLUS ONES! So that will always be a nice memory of our celebration. 

Dan Pugach CD cover

Why did Ingrid Jensen say the CD has “joyful energy” and is that a sound you strive for?

I definitely strive for that in this band. I have gone to see too many jazz bands that are only focused on their technical abilities and send a message that jazz is a closed club for the experts. I want my music to have a story, a mood, a clear message. The technique is there, the sophisticated voicings are in there, the metric modulations and the cool harmonies are there. But they’re hidden. What you get is the joy of making music together with good friends, good grooves that are healthy for your soul and all the intricate-jazzy-rich-sophistication in gift-wrap.  

How do you convey the feel of Brooklyn in “Brooklyn Blues”?

“Brooklyn Blues” was written with two ideas in mind. One was to bring a dance-y, energetic and optimistic vibe like you see in Prospect Park at the summer concerts, a Park Slope street fair, a Williamsburg Hasidic wedding, the marathon, in Bed Stuy and Bushwick lofts, and just the overall vibe of people in a melting pot of cultures. That’s where the New Orleans second line street-beat comes from.

But it’s also a blues. “I got the Brooklyn Blues.” I can’t sleep at night thanks to the garbage trucks, ambulances, taxis, patrons of the bar yelling downstairs. My building is old and smelly. I’m paying my rent from playing drums. I’m schleppin’ those drums up the stairs at 3 a.m. I got the Brooklyn Blues pretty much. 

How did the band manage to give a fresh sound to the classic “Sleigh Ride”?

I wrote this arrangement for a show we played at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT two years ago in December. People were expecting some holiday music so I decided to mess with them.

Funny story. Nicole only knew Ella’s version which doesn’t have the third section “There’s a birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray”…We show up to rehearsal and I (Mr. Jewish Boy from Israel here) had arranged only the A A B A parts. Then the band stops and Mike the trombonist says, “What happened to the bridge?!” Nicole looks at me, I look at her. “What bridge?” So he starts singing and I had to go back and add that third part. So it had to be in a 6/8 Afro-Cuban with weird hits in it to stand out. 

How did you meet the personnel from the Nonet and what is the vibe like when you are all together?

I met cats on different gigs in New York since my arrival in 2008. I remember always admiring them as musicians (still) and now we are all friends. They even came to our wedding and played “You Can Call Me Al” as a horn section which was epic. The vibe is super positive and fun. Everyone just chats nonstop until I count off the first tune at rehearsal. We all rehearse at our tiny apartment in Park Slope and they don’t play a note before they are served my famous cappuccino (aka Pugachino). 

Can you describe each one’s contribution to your overall sound?

They are basically Power Rangers. Each has his thing and I write my arrangements to their sound. 

David Smith – impressive, fast, strong solos, a team player. If the harmony is not conventional, give the solo to Dave. He’ll figure it out.

Mike Fahie – sophisticated and sneaky solos, huge lead trombone sound, will kill any line in any range and any tempo.

Jen Hinkle – “Oh you can write for me lower than that. Like, a lot lower than that. One time I played on a Broadway show and the lowest note was _____ and it was three fortissimo.” She holds us down. She doesn’t want to solo. Just give her the hardest and most impossible lines and go as low as you can.

Andrew Gould – will play until smoke comes out or until you tell him to stop. A real lead alto player with a huge romantic sound that can turn into fast Cannonball lines. Sounds great on Neo Soul R&B stuff.

Jeremy Powell – element of surprise. Jeremy has a great blend with the other horns and I use him for long developmental solos that make you cry. Like on “Coming Here.” He uses his horn very creatively. Every squeak and sound effect is part of his vocabulary, not just lines.

Andrew Gutauskas – he brings the bluesy/soul vibe. His solos are thoughtful and warm and he’s very responsible when it comes to bass clarinet with the other winds and baritone with bass trombone.

Someone wrote a review about the album and said something like: “Carmen [Staaf] paints with a brush while Jorn [Swart] is double-fisting the piano…” – whatever that means it couldn’t be further from the truth. Carmen is destroying the piano and reaching new climaxes every chorus on “Jolene” and Jorn has more of a sarcastic/minimalistic comping approach on “Discourse This” and “Crystal Silence.” They both can provide support and shred but I like their different language. Jorn brings the European subtlety and derives his approach from folk songs. Carmen is your jazzy jazz pianist who has an affinity for the more out-there style.

Tamir Shmerling is as solid as they get. He can play groove. He can walk. He can solo. And he brings the punchiness to the band. I don’t have to worry about locking in with the rhythm section when he’s there.

Ingrid Jensen is our hero. Our idol. She has a unique way of approaching the solos even on the weirdest harmonies. She finds a way to create long notes and “simple” sounding phrases that make the funkiest section sound pretty. She is a nasty lead player as well! 

Nicole Zuraitis is my longest collaboration. We started playing gigs in 2009 and haven’t stopped since. Beyond her huge silky voice, she has a unique way of delivering lyrics without having any mannerisms. She is very careful with lyrics and she doesn’t sing what she can’t hear. So no BS there. She makes me write stuff I know she’ll dig and not fall into the trap of over-harmonizing something or writing lines that only saxophones can execute. She can tear down a wall when she sings the blues.

What is the jazz scene like in Israel?

The jazz scene is very different than NY. There are two main scenes, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are only a few clubs and two jazz festivals which is nothing compared to how many amazing musicians are living there and pushing the envelope. If there is a difference between the two scenes I wouldn’t know because I left pretty early.

What’s your favorite club to play in New York?

The 55 Bar is our home right now. We play completely acoustically in a decent-sized room to people who are hungry for music, unlike clubs where musicians go to show their face and chat, or tourists go to be loud and obnoxious. This is a listening room and we have created some incredible intimate moments with this 9-, well, 10-piece band there.

Do you change your presence when you perform with a vocalist vs. no vocalist?

Everything changed for the better when I started incorporating vocal arrangements in the nonet. It made my writing better and it helped reach more of an audience by having vocals on stage. Playing familiar composers like Stevie Wonder, Dolly Parton and Justin Timberlake alongside the Great American Songbook helped balance the original material that is not always easy to digest at first. I have had only good experiences with vocalists since they are all great friends and colleagues of mine.

Your favorite collaboration; or your “dream team”?

I guess I’m living the dream. Having my consistent cast of horns who know my music inside-out and my best friend Nicole at the front IS my dream team. As far as a rhythm section goes I’m more of a butterfly. I like a lot of different cats on acoustic bass, electric, acoustic piano, organ, guitar and no harmony at all that I keep changing them based on the gig and my mood. 

Most fun accessory in your kit?

I don’t like carrying many cymbals. I also never know how many cymbal stands will be available other than the usual two. So I just bring a ride cymbal and a thin crash with holes in it. And then when the time is right I stack the crash on top of the ride and create this short-metally-snappy sound for special effect and solos. My iPhone is ALWAYS on my snare drum to muffle it. And it’s funny to see people stare at it waiting for me to accidentally hit the phone. Haven’t broken a phone so far.

Preference: fast swing, ballad, Latin feel?

Love this question. At every jam session I went to in New York I was the one who called ballads. Why? Not because I can’t hang on a fast tune. But because it’s never played at a jam. Think of the poor people listening to a jam. Fast after fast after fast followed by faster. It’s actually extremely hard to play a ballad especially if you don’t know your bandmates very well. If not a ballad, then give me a samba any day.

Release date and marketing plans?

The album release was February 16, 2018., with radio campaign at the same time to run as long as the project is alive and radios spin it. A few ads in magazines in the U.S and Europe and the rest is on me. Since then, we’ve been playing shows and booking tours.

What is the hardest part of marketing oneself as a musician? And the most gratifying?

Marketing is hard when you don’t know what you’re doing. And I don’t know what I’m doing. So I hire the professionals. And it’s been pretty cool to see how well the project does when the right people WHO LOVE THE MUSIC AND BELIEVE IN IT are working behind it.

The most gratifying moment so far was when we played at The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook, NY, where I don’t know a single soul and it was packed! On a night of a storm! Turns out people heard us on WBGO and decided to come check it out. That to me is mind-blowing.

Other comments?

I love your blog and the fact that the questions were tailored to this album. Thank you for listening!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Dan Pugach. Top photo (c) Martin Cohen.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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