We are spoiled for choice in the Big Apple when it comes to jazz. There are so many artists and venues that most of the time the challenge is in actually knowing what is going on where – and of course if the music is your kind of jazz. I’ve been caught a couple of times with the very esoteric modern variety – feathered wind shakers and percussion shells that never seem to find their way to the end of the score. Then there’s the rich Wynton Marsalis kind that you wish never would. Of course once you have bought your tickets and are committed to a two drink minimum, the damage is already done. So I was very pleased when a Melbourne muso suggested I chase up the delightful Nicki Parrott and report on her blossoming career.
Nicki is an Australian bass player and singer who first came to NYC in the nineties to further her studies. She didn’t expect to stay, but as it happened she was in the Iridium Club one night, the original home of famed guitarist Les Paul, and took up his invitation to perform a number on stage with a couple of male friends. At the end of the song Les said the guys could go, ‘but leave the girl up here’. Twelve years later, she’s still there! Monday nights at the Iridium became a regular gig for Nicki, and it was here she also added vocals to her repertoire. Les Paul has since passed, but the Trio continues to set the standard with a formidable lineup of guests and last night this just happened to be Bucky Pizzarelli and Gene Bertoncini. The two men appeared quite frail and had to be helped on stage – Gene is 75, and Bucky is 94, with gnarled arthritic hands. They bent over their guitars, silver hair glistening against the neon background, but as they started to play, the physical turned to the ethereal. It was magic to hear them play. It turned out Bucky had flown in from Paraguay in time for the gig, and was about to go on the road with Nicki for the following week. He also just recorded an album with Paul McCartney – the Beatle flew him over to London – and being 94 was no more a deterrent to playing than was arthritis. I asked Nicki about how she felt performing with these master musicians, veterans of the industry. At first she quoted Les Paul likening it to a condemned building having a new flagpole. But she said her classical training and appreciation of the craft of jazz meant they had a special respect for her. On stage it was all like an extended family, with a comraderie that you could sense.
In fact Nicki has a bigger reputation in Europe than in the States, and is so popular in Japan she was voted the world’s best jazz vocalist two years in a row. She will be touring there next month, appearing at the Cotton Club in Tokyo. For all the packed houses and famous connections Nicki seems totally non-plussed. She has accomplished everything without an agent, being happy that hard work and opportunity intersected just at the right time. She obviously loves to perform and has a good time when she does, smiling as she thumbs through those velvety bass beats.
For Nicki Australia is never far away. She considers herself a patriot rather than an ‘ex-pat’, there are koalas on her website intermingled with her publicity shots, and she has a great sense of humor. When I made the classic faux pax about her surname Parrott, saying it was a perfect name for a singer, Nicki very cheerfully explained her name is pronounced pah-rot! So when you are next in NYC looking for some easy listening jazz, you’ll find Nicki at the Iridium in Times Square on Monday nights. Be sure to say g’day!