Guitarist Nicolas Meier is about to release a new, ambitious triple album, Magnificent, with his World Group, (violinist Richard Jones, bassist Kevin Glasgow and percussionist Demi Garcia Sabat). “The collection often suggests a wellspring of ideas and experiences in Nicolas Meier’s head and fingers that had been waiting for an opportunity to burst out.” The launch is at the 606 Club on 20 October. Feature by John Fordham.
Even in a globally-intimate music world long accustomed to cross-cultural hybrids, the adventures of Nicolas Meier, the elegantly skilful and stylistically agile guitarist, composer, and bandleader from Switzerland, turns heads. Meier, whose triple-album Magnificent is released this month, and who is back on the road into 2022 with his four-piece World Group, starts his appeal from an ever-alluring source – pretty tunes. Like his early hero, Pat Metheny, Meier loves catchy songlike melody wherever it comes from, and that open-handedly communicative quality has infused his music from the start, and still does. But he also hears the traditions of jazz guitar (which he absorbed from that most influential of oracles, Boston’s Berklee College) in seamless harmony with Anatolian and Middle Eastern music, western rock, flamenco, tango, and much else.
Back in 2005, on his global-jazzy Orient album, Nicolas Meier sounded intriguingly like a Metheny-inspired guitarist whose imagination crossed borders of Europe, Asia and the Middle East (his painter wife and long-time muse Songul is Turkish), and who was developing a personal music that could embrace like-minded eclectics including Israelis Gilad Atzmon on reeds and percussionist Asaf Sirkis, but also the funky postbop of UK jazz virtuosi like pianist James Pearson and alto saxist Dave O’Higgins. Over the following decade, Meier’s sound on a variety of stringed instruments would often colour those early Metheny influences with timbres that could suggest a lute, an oud or Django Reinhardt’s ringing acoustic guitar sound and swing – qualities enhanced by his loyalty to the Canadian Godin guitar company, with their focus on amplified nylon-stringed instruments, and a global-music sweep including the oud-like 11-stringed Glissentar fretless guitar. Meier also liked rocking out when the mood took him, making three heavy metal albums with his Seven7 group, and touring for three years with the legendary Jeff Beck, before recording a contemplative duo session with fellow-guitarist Pete Oxley with ‘Chasing Tales’ in 2015. But the pandemic, as it did for many people in many ways, changed the path Meier thought he was on in the spring of 2020.
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‘Well, lockdown, of course it was all a surprise – but at least everybody was in it,’ Meier recalls from Songul’s art studio at their Guildford home when we hook up on Zoom. ‘We were all in trouble. So the first thing I thought was well, let’s relax, let’s take a break. I’d just finished our ‘Peaceful’ tour with my World Group, which is the violinist Richard Jones – who I used to play with in Gabrielle Ducomble’s group – bassist Kevin Glasgow, who’s a great team player and virtuosic soloist, and an amazing percussionist, Demi Garcia Sabat, who’s from Barcelona but came to London in 1999. These are three guys I love playing with, because they cross so many styles. A month before the first lockdown, we’d had the luck to film and record our gig at Colchester Arts Centre – where the people had been really helpful in giving me a multi-track, and filming it very well. So because I now had time on my hands, I learned how to mix it – and I was surprised that nine songs out of everything we had played sounded good to me. So that was the live recording that started the whole Magnificent project.’
So in that strange spring of 2020, Nicolas Meier found himself with the material for a single live album, but with no prospect of any gigs to sell or promote it on. The situation set him thinking about a bigger package that could give long-time fans and new listeners a fuller picture of his multifaceted character as a solo guitarist as well as an ensemble player, and to document the broad idiomatic sweep, from timeless jazz tunes and standard songs, to a global music repertoire of original compositions – inspired by Turkish, Balkan, north African, Spanish and Latin American sources – that has given his work such a widespread appeal over the years.
As the possibilities grew, so did the format. Meier eventually opted for a triple digipack, illustrated by performance shots and his wife Songul Yilmaz-Meier’s delicate landscape paintings. Of the three discs, ‘Magnificent’ would be a collection of all-new original tunes recorded piecemeal by the band-members in pairs (under the pandemic social conditions of winter and spring 2020-21), and finally turned into a group sound at the mixing desk by Meier and engineer Marco Meniconi. Their Colchester concert recordings made up the ‘Live’ second disc, while the tracklist of the third, ‘Stories’, comprised 14 unaccompanied Meier solos on jazz evergreens and famous hits from ‘La Vie En Rose’ to ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ and ‘The Godfather’.
Nicolas Meier’s melodic grace and avoidance of guitar-star swaggering infuse all these solo meditations – he’s hip and swinging in flying chord-wrapped bop runs on Charlie Parker’s ‘Blues For Alice’, poignantly contrapuntal amid the simmering emotions of Nino Rota’s ‘The Godfather’, and shifts seamlessly from lyrical dreaminess to electric blues slides on Charles Mingus’ Lester Young tribute, ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’. On the quartet tracks, Demi Garcia Sabat’s loose, offhandedly-struck grooves and hollow, gourd-like sounds, Kevin Glasgow’s agile guitar-like basslines, and violinist Richard Jones’ mix of keening delicacy and muscular chordwork effortlessly portray Turkish street music (on the Black Sea-inspired ‘Mesudiye’) classically-inflected reveries, flamenco music, or Stephane Grappelli-like gypsy swing. ‘Manzanita Samba’ on the live disc, could almost have been a Pat Metheny track, in the easygoing glide of Meier’s shifts across the chords, while a dreamy sway and an Iberian heat-haze mingle on ‘City Of The 3 Rivers’, and Meier’s flamenco phrasing skims across the intro to ‘Adiguzel’ before a whirling Turkish dance cranks up.
The collection often suggests a wellspring of ideas and experiences in Nicolas Meier’s head and fingers that had been waiting for an opportunity to burst out. But it was an unexpected lockdown experience that focused the energies to make it happen, when the guitarist rediscovered the social role of music-making no further from home than his own back garden.
‘Where I live in Guildford, my next door neighbour is an older lady who was very depressed about the whole situation on the day the first lockdown was announced,’ Meier recollects. ‘On that day it was sunny, and I said to her “why don’t you get out of the house and do some gardening, and I’ll take my amplifier into my garden and I’ll play some music for you”. She liked that idea so I played, and eventually all my neighbours started to clap. It was such a great vibe, I ended up playing for two and a half hours. That was the beginning. The next week I linked it to the computer and friends in Switzerland and in Guildford, started to find out about live streaming, and it turned into a weekly jazz club involving friends and neighbours, and people I’d never met but wanted to play with. I did about 120 live streams, and then last December it became a little two-week guitar festival, with players performing socially-distanced at my house. The principle of that was always that people had to come, it was a live concert. I’d send a mail out saying ok, I’m playing at two, and at three thirty I’ll delete the show. So people get used to the idea that it’s a live show, you’re coming or you’re not coming.’
Nicolas Meier will pay fascinating tribute to a raft of individuals and influences in his life if you get him started on the journey that took him from his Swiss childhood in the 1970s to contact with so much of the music of the world. He cites playing with Indonesian musicians Dwiki Dharmawan (an icon in Indonesia as both a multi-instrumentalist and cultural campaigner) and east-west guitarist Dewa Budjana as a highlight of recent years, as has been the LA recording of his album Infinity with American bassist Jimmy Haslip and celebrated fusion drummer Vinnie Colaiuta – meetings made possible through the New York global-music indie Moonjune Records and its dynamic founder Leonardo Pavkovic, and the encouragement of Grammy-winning former Frank Zappa guitarist Steve Vai. But his warmest thoughts and thanks soon gravitate to the players and friends who have enriched his life since he moved to London early in the millennium – expat Israeli musicians Asaf Sirkis and Gilad Atzmon, Jeff Beck, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, Pete Oxley, and latterly his exhilaratingly open-minded partners in the World Group.
‘When I came here, after studying jazz at Berklee in the States, I was already into sounds from outside American jazz,’ Meier observes. ‘Through listening to players like Paco de Lucia, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin, and then meeting my wife Songul and going to Turkey with her and hearing musicians there, it was such a big world of sound to discover. I felt like a child at the beginning, so many things to practice, and in those early years I learned so much from Asaf Sirkis and Gilad Atzmon too. I had just been this Swiss guy who went to America to study jazz. But all these experiences after that made my music feel so much deeper. But I don’t pretend to be a master of some of these old traditions that we explore. I love flamenco, but I don’t really understand it – though Demi gives me some clues! In the end, though, I can only play as myself, it’s me, it’s not the real thing. I try to do something that’s faithful to that. When I play my Turkish music to Turks, they say, it’s not Turkish music, and of course it’s not. But hopefully there’s some influence of it that shows how much it matters to me.’
Meier’s World Group returned to the road this September, over a year-and-a-half since they last got together with a live audience. Though the new album is spectacular evidence that the leader has used the lockdown months remarkably well, he’s fervently relieved to be reconnected to the energy fans bring, and to be sharing it with a band of likeminded talents in the World Group, who create surprises and spring fresh ideas from each other, and for whom Meier believes the best may be yet to come. Europe and maybe the States beckon as tour destinations in 2022, as does new album and summer gigs with his guitar-duet alter ego, Pete Oxley. And if Meier is still careful to observe that ‘these are still uncertain times’, his upbeat nature quickly supplies the antidote.
‘My feeling is to enjoy every step forward,’ Nicolas Meier says. ‘That album, that band, that gig. Things will happen. But perhaps now we’ve had to learn to be more patient than we were before.’
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Nicolas Meier’s World Group will launch Magnificent at the 606 Club, 90 Lots Road, Chelsea, SW10 0QD (0207 352 5953; website) on Wednesday 20 October.
Categories: Features/Interviews (PP)