Everything Looks Like a Hammer?

Neil Alexander small

When you’re pianist Neil Alexander and your band is named NAIL, you’ve already got a sense of irony. Playful, raw and energetic, NAIL’s music defies category.

There’s jazz influences, fusion, funk and more. Being tender is not foreign territory either: Alexander’s cover of “Darn that Dream” (from “Solo Piano Vol. 1”) is full of rolling arpeggios (hearkening to his classical roots) and he uses adornments as well as contrasting dynamics that are positively Monk-like.  Ethereally yours on “At the Water’s Edge” (from “Tugging at the Infinite”) he opts to start off with new-agey effects, but the song takes a hard right into an Emerson/Lake/Palmer vibe, where Alexander shows another side to his sensibilities. The track “Sentience” (from “Soft Invaders”) fits into no box neatly, but he rocks this tone poem just the same.

This year, he’ll reprise a role from 2015 when he performs at the Hudson Valley Jazz Fest, running from August 8-11.

Why did you name your band NAIL?

Growing up in NYC in the alternative downtown scene in the late 70’s and early 80’s, every musician I know had a band name alongside their actual names. One of my first groups was called A. Animal. That group ran from ’78 to ’94 (with a few breaks). I spent 10 years touring with a rock group, and one of their sound engineers was very fond of nicknames. I quickly acquired the name Nail and have been called that by many friends ever since. It is most definitely a play on words. Originally it was just “NAIL” but online we were getting confused with a metal band so I added my name to the front end and violà: Neil Alexander & NAIL. 

What were you taken with first, jazz or funk?

Actually, my first love was classical music. The Beatles were an early influence, as was pianist and arranger Eumir Deodato who did jazzy-funky arrangements of classical and jazz standards. But real funk didn’t enter the picture ’til later. 

The real revelation came when I heard Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” where the two styles were seamlessly blended. Complex compositions and arrangements, serious jazz harmonies and that eva-lovin’ groove. 

How did you feel at your first public performance?

One of my first performances was at age 13. I had written and arranged a piece for the high school jazz band. Four years later I was thrown off the bandstand at the jazz jam session at Folk City in NYC. I laugh just to think about it.

Three years after that, I started performing my own compositions. Honestly I was so involved with writing and performing I didn’t stop to think how it was received, but it felt great! 

Compare your bands NAIL and Mr. Gone.

NAIL primarily performs my own compositions; it’s an ensemble where I can combine music in a variety of styles, fully reflecting all my influences. Those influences are extensive – jazz, rock, fusion, progressive rock, ambient music, electronica, and world music – and NAIL is where I get to bring ’em all together, shooting for a cohesive whole which often defies categorization.  

Personnel-wise we fluctuate: generally a quartet, we have sometimes performed as a trio or quintet. For the Hudson Valley Jazz Festival we’ll be a sextet with two additional musicians, Todd Isler (percussion) and Monroe Quinn (guitar), along with the quartet of Nadav Snir-Zelniker (drums), Brian Mooney (basses) and Steven Frieder (saxophones).

Mr. Gone, on the other hand, is a group I assembled with my friend, the saxophonist, composer and educator Peter Furlan. Peter and I have similar roots which include a variety of influences. When we were trying to come up with a new project we decided to perform the music of two seminal jazz fusion groups, Weather Report and the Headhunters. Although original compositions by both Pete & myself make it into our sets, we’re generally honoring that specific body of work; a “repertory ensemble” if you will. I spent a considerable amount of time in tribute bands, so I thought that might make a good template for a new project. Mr. Gone keeps to a quartet, with Ratzo Harris on bass and several drummers including Richie Morales and Terry Silverlight. 

I also perform in a solo electronic format as Nail Jung, and next year I will be officially starting my chamber music group the X Ensemble. 

What’s the biggest difference looking back at your musical self from 20 years ago to who you are now?

I’d have to say maturity. My goals haven’t changed all that much, but my ability to deal with poor conditions – adversity if you will – and roll with it makes for a more relaxed and focused approach. I’m here to create the best music I can despite the circumstances. Twenty years ago I was just finding my footing as a bandleader.

What’s the best way to keep audiences coming to your concerts?

Although the word jazz is the closest I can find that describes my music, it’s too limiting and therefore incorrect. A lot of people define it very narrowly, so it’s always a challenge getting people to come out to hear it. I find the closer I stay to my vision of diversity and sensitivity, the more people seem to notice.

Are you playing the Hudson Valley Jazz Fest?

This is my second year performing this event with my own group. The first was in 2015, after NAIL had taken a two-year hiatus while I pursued a solo piano tour.  

How do you keep your sound fresh?

There are two sides to that coin. The first is that I want to break new ground as both an improviser and a composer. Secondly I want to be recognizable as an artist, stylistically. I want to put my own stamp and personality into what I’m doing.

It comes down to pushing myself in new directions while remaining true to my voice and vision for my music.

Your most recent CD? 

There are two from last year, a solo piano volume 2 and NAIL Live at the Blue Note. This year I released a solo ambient electronica album titled “Overview Effect” under the name Nail Jung. I’ve got three more of those kinds of records coming out this year, and we’re going to record a new NAIL CD at the end of this year. Before that the last NAIL CD was “Tugging at the Infinite” from 2006.

Favorite track on it?

That’s like having a favorite child. Sorry, can’t do it! It’s more like there are favorite moments from each disc. For example, one of my favorite moments from “Tugging at the Infinite” is the synth solo in the first half of “Starlight Casts No Shadow.” I was imitating a guitar, and I felt I really got it right, that certain vibe. 

Best part of producing it?

I love every aspect of working in the studio, from recording and editing to mixing and mastering. The two most satisfying things for me are getting an amazing performance recorded, like a kick-ass solo or ensemble passage; and getting it “in the can” and putting the final CD in sequence so that the record makes sense as a whole.

Sequencing is becoming a lost art. It was essential in AOR (album-oriented rock) albums of the 70’s and onwards. The order of the songs (and amount of time between them) was very important to the overall vibe of a record.

For more information, visit www.nailmusic.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Neil Alexander.
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

purple gliss


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