Nick Bhalla took his time with this new album, Solo Piano, parceling out tracks individually like one would share a box of rich Swiss chocolates, allowing anticipation for the next tasty surprise. A multi-instrumentalist (add in guitar and trumpet) and multi-genre player (add rock), Bhalla crafted five tracks that leave room and space for contemplation and appreciation. “Rewoven” starts with a light fall from above and is a walk-through with switchbacks and exploration of the keys (meant both ways). “Invisible Ink” has the aesthetic of a classic jazz love song. Something about the way this lays out feels as if you can imagine the vocals sitting right above it, on a cushion of air. “Marginalia” (love the name) is pressed with humor and attitude, sweet to its core.
In this interview, he talks about blocks chords and you hear them as the grounding structure of these songs, but there are lingering melodies and sonic curlicue fragments that weave in and out, often surprising in their direction.
Talk about your early music training and what stuck with you most of all.
I first took piano lessons when I was four. The thing I remember most is ear training. My teacher would have me turn around and play intervals, and I’d have to guess them. Now I do the same thing with my piano students, and I turn it into a game where they see how many they can get in a row. A strong ear is essential for improvised music, and it’s important to begin that process at a young age. I like the feeling of occasionally realizing that some of my teaching practices are buried somewhere back in my own childhood.
In middle school jazz band, I started playing trumpet in addition to piano. I can recall the first time we learned how to improvise on a Bb twelve-bar blues. I remember thinking “wait, I can play whatever I want?” It was so energizing to be able to create freely, and I was very hooked on that right away. From then on, improvising became an essential part of my musical routine. When I started picking out my own records around high school, I was really attracted to those “golden age” jazz albums, the watershed ones – Waltz for Debby, Kind of Blue, Mingus Ah Um, Take Five, that kind of thing. I remember thinking how cool it was to find extended editions with alternate takes, where you can hear the musicians developing their ideas and stretching out. Like anybody my age, I was also around a ton of rock/pop/folk music- my first concert was Simon & Garfunkel (thanks Dad) and some of the first records I had were Fleet Foxes, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Zeppelin.
Who are your influences today?
It’s impossible to overstate my debt to Bill Evans. I can’t get enough of him, in small group format or in solo sessions. His conception of harmony changed the way I think about music- particularly the broad expansiveness of including nearly entire modes within chord voicings. He and I are both left-handed – I’ve always been fascinated by handedness and the way it affects musicianship – and when I listen to his solo sessions in particular, I imagine those dense block chords flowing so naturally from the left hand. His duet albums with Jim Hall are truly special – the mind-meld they achieved and captured on record is so intimate that it can almost be difficult to listen to unless I’m in exactly the right headspace.
I also owe a lot to Chick Corea for his unending dedication to creative expression. I wish I could have seen him before he passed. I remember watching footage of a show where he had the audience “warm up” by having them sing back little phrases that he played, and that reminded me of those early ear training exercises with my piano teacher. He had such a great sense of humor and personality that he brought with him, and that defrayed the concept of jazz as being too “serious” of an art form.
Outside the piano, I’ve spent years as a gigging guitarist in a number of bands – I have always looked up to Pat Metheny, Jerry Garcia, Sco, Trey Anastasio, Emily Remler, and Jim Hall. I also love Ron Carter, Gary Burton, the Tony Williams Lifetime, all of those modern greats as well.
Would you say your music is driven first by melody, chord structure or key, or other?
My music is 100% driven first by chord progressions. This approach comes from a background in studying jazz improvisation. With my trumpet professor in college, I ended up spending most of my lessons hunched over the piano, learning how to arpeggiate as many chord progressions as I could fit in my brain. I loved the process of harmonic analysis, examining why a tune worked because of its harmony, then using that information to help me come up with strong melodic ideas as an improviser (and now this is one of my favorite things to do with my jazz students). I used to go back to the practice rooms and run a guitar looper to reharmonize the tunes, then I’d improvise over them with the trumpet or the guitar. The piano was always there as a tool for both information and expression, no matter what. That process has stuck with me, and I can get lost in the “shedding,” spending hours staring at a chord progression and finding every possible arpeggio and chord-scale.
How was a solo album different in terms of production; easier in some ways, but what were the challenges?
I’m a hardcore introvert, but I’m also a really social player who loves working in a bunch of groups. I work as a sideman in several independent rock groups in Minneapolis, and before the pandemic, my music routines were mostly about self-development: learning tons of classical and jazz tunes and working on etudes and exercises, but not so much direction toward my own creations or finished projects. I’m talking about hours and hours of guitar-looper time with tons of different jazz standards and modern charts. I was seeing about 40 students a week and gigging several times a month. Then when the pandemic hit, I actually had the time and space to work on my own material.
During the lockdown, once everyone realized there wouldn’t be gigs for a long time, it was invigorating to step away from the obsessive guitar work and return to the piano – my first instrument, but one that fell behind while I grew up working toward trumpet scholarships and then in adulthood, guitar hireability. I found that for solo playing, the piano’s “self-contained” quality was really magical – I didn’t need other players for this kind of project. When the whole world was panicking, it was very comforting to stick the headphones on and dive into calming music that is both relaxing and cerebrally stimulating. I worked up a home studio and found that it was quite easy to track solo piano after learning how to do it.
A big challenge for me is multi-instrumentalism: in public, I’m a guitar player, and in private, I am constantly tinkering with solo piano. A lot of multi-instrumentalists struggle with time management and the identity rifts that come with being hireable on multiple instruments. For example, this month I am recording a lot of solo piano in my home studio, but now that the snow’s melting in Minneapolis, I’ll be gigging and touring consistently with guitar and occasionally mandolin. It can be tough to set aside my own goals for other projects, and vice versa. Plenty of people in town will see me play guitar in rock bands, and they might have no clue that I have this jazz piano project!
Who do you typically collab with and what do you like about playing with them?
I am out gigging regularly (as a guitarist) with Twin Cities-based rock bands Maria & the Coins, Dusty Forever, and Neopolitan, and playing mandolin occasionally with Harlow. I adore playing music with people socially. I call myself a “music extrovert” – I’m very introverted, but I’m down to spend time with people all day if it’s for music. I’ve spent most of my musical upbringing being prepped to be a sideman, lots of ear training, classical and jazz study, instrumental development, that kind of thing. I like to think of how much I can offer to band leaders to help uplift their songwriting and be a strong listener in a group.
These groups are also some of my best friends in the world. I am one of those music addicts where rehearsals, soundchecks, and gigs are most of my social life. Minneapolis is a small city, and lots of social circles overlap with each other. There’s tons of support across different projects. Usually if I go to a smaller club with a gig happening, I can bank on running into several friends from over the years.
When you perform with others, do you prefer a small ensemble or a big band? Why?
I prefer small groups. To be honest, in this gigging economy, there aren’t many bills listed around here for big bands, unless it’s an occasional artist-review or special event. I really liked being in the St. Olaf jazz program and playing in the big bands there, but nowadays, I like being able to communicate in small groups. There’s more room for listening and expression. It’s really fun to get together with players in duo or trio format- that’s where I feel like I can “listen loud.”
What inspired these solo tracks?
Honestly, for me, music is a self-contained thing without extrinsic inspiration. I usually can’t think of instrumental music being “about” something, and for me, the notes themselves are telling the story, but that story isn’t quite able to be described with words or specific ideas. There is this wordless quality to improvised music that can really only be heard in the music. It’s like trying to describe colors to someone who has never seen them – you just have to experience it.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
Here in Minneapolis, I’m a regular in the indie rock scene, and more of a fan in the jazz scene. The rock scene here is very mutually supportive. I have met so many wonderful musicians who all exist in this melting pot sort of environment. The jazz scene is great, too. I’ve loved going out to dig the sets from players like Phil Hey, Mary Louise Knutson, Zacc Harris, Bryan Nichols, Dave Hagedorn, Kevin Washington, JT and Chris Bates, and so many others. There are a bunch of smaller clubs here where you can pretty much sit right across from the band and chat with them between sets if you want.
What are your hopes for this year in terms of producing music and venues and events to perform?
This spring, I’m working on some harmonically experimental improvised music for solo piano. It is considerably weirder than this album I’m releasing now! I have plenty of tracking done, and I’m on a nice streak of composing/recording. That’s for the home studio. Out in public, I’ll be hitting the road in a few weeks with Maria & the Coins and taking plenty of local gigs in the Twin Cities with Dusty Forever, Neopolitan, and Harlow.
For more information, visit nick.bhalla on Instagram.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
© 2023 Debbie Burke
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