“He’s fearless,” is how bassist and trumpeter James Singleton once described pianist Brian Haas, his fellow bandmate in the super-group Nolatet. “He has no jazz industrial complex baggage. He’s classically trained, has no stylistic prejudices and is a complete wild man.”
“It takes one to know one,” Haas replied on hearing the description that he considered a high compliment. The pianist, who’s on fire on Nolatet’s sophomore release, No Revenge Necessary, and composed 5 of its 10 original cuts, could be declared the oddity of quartet. He is the sole member of in the group who is not a New Orleans resident, and he is by far the youngest guy in the band. Nolatet’s other musicians—Singleton, vibeist/percussionist Mike Dillon and drummer Johnny Vidacovich—have Haas, 44, beat by a decade or two. So how does this Santa Fe, New Mexico resident via Oklahoma so ably fit into this group of highly accomplished veterans?
“It’s because of my devotion to all three of these men just with them being my heroes,” Haas adamantly declares. “I was 18 years old the first time I heard Mike Dillon play, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was only playing classical music but trying to get out of classical music. Friends told me you have to come see this guy, he’s totally insane. So I went to this punk rock club and there was this terrifying man on stage and he was buck ass naked,” Haas continues, explaining that the band, Billy Goat, had a song that encouraged everybody to get naked. “I go in there and my life was never the same. It seemed as if I was experiencing some kind of wizardry at work. Really it was Mike Dillon who gave me the confidence in a lot of ways to get out of classical music and focus on my own thing and write my own music. I soon started my band, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey.”
Haas and the Jazz Odyssey, which has included Dillon off and on through the years, began touring heavily including stops in New Orleans beginning in the 1990s. On meeting like-minded musicians in the city, the pianist says all they talked about was Vidacovich and Singleton. “I’ve been watching these maestros for years,” he offers, mentioning the pair’s gigs at the Maple Leaf. “They are my favorite rhythm section and I’m still blown away by them every night. New Orleans is the center of my musical world. It’s where this incredible art form was birthed.”
The four musicians, who would become Nolatet, first performed together at the Telluride Jazz Festival in 2014, where Dillon, Singleton and Vidacovich had a gig. “We asked Brian to come up and play with us because we were all crazy about him,” Singleton remembered. Following that performance, Nolatet did some other jobs here in New Orleans and Mississippi before heading into the Esplanade Studios to record its exceptional debut, Dogs, for the Royal Potato Family label.
“I can tell you what it sounds like to me sometimes when I’m involved with the music and my head is spinning,” Vidacovich related while reclining in the back of a van during the group’s first tour. “It reminds me of a circus and a Christmas tree with a lot of lights.”
In part, Haas credits his background in classical music for his “sweet” acceptance into Nolatet’s concept. “I’m able to do something different with each one of them. When one of then comes to the forefront, speaking in the lead, I’m able to do something unique for each in a support role that is very based on call and response and rapid reactivity. I can support them without comping. With Johnny, I become more like Stravinsky. With James it’s always Ravel and Debussy. James will let me re-harmonize his tunes from the beginning to end. I was scared at first that he would say, ‘Will you please play what I wrote.’ He’s told me that he wants me to break away from the harmonies he’s written and listen to what he’s playing [on trumpet] and basically re-harmonize on the spot. I barely look at the music anymore.”
The result can be heard on No Revenge Necessary’s opening cut, Singleton’s “Black Sheep,” on which the composer pulls out his pocket trumpet and employs an electronic bass loop on this fascinating, unusual ditty of a tune. Meanwhile, Haas, on a nine-foot Steinway, plays harmonically contrasting single note runs on a melody that suggests, though doesn’t actually state, the childhood nursery rhyme and song “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”
“Mike, who plays vibraphones through a lot of different effects, will get more aggressive and I’ll just go into the land of Erik Satie,” Haas continues. Dillon’s tendency for explosion is realized throughout the disc and particularly on the vibraphonist’s self-penned, deceptively titled “Elegant Miss J.” It begins with a sway and the soft tone of Singleton’s bowed bass and trumpet solo and concludes with an eruption. Moving from quiet to explosive, Haas agrees, seems to be a trademark of Nolatet, an ensemble in which the excellence of musical talent allows anything to go. “In a simple way, it comes out of punk rock, it comes out of the old secret music formula, loud soft, loud soft,” Haas explains. “A lot of times Mike Dillon is extremely bombastic on solos and the next person might go, ‘Now we need quietude.’”
No Revenge Necessary was recorded in New Orleans at the Esplanade Studios with all the band members in one big room not isolated by baffling. “We’re just in there live hoping for the best,” Haas remembers with a laugh. Both of Nolatet’s albums were produced in a relatively minimal amount of time with, according to Haas, Johnny Vidacovich deciding when to wrap up the sessions.
“Johnny V just stands up from the drum set and says, ‘Babies, that’s a great record. I’m going home. I’m the one who knows that the longer we go, the worse it’s going to get,’” Haas relates hilariously, mimicking Vidacovich’s distinctive voice and New Orleans patois. With a similar aim, Haas says that while in the studio recording No Revenge Necessary, Vidacovich yelled into the recording booth asking, “How many songs we got?” “We have 10,” came the reply. “And JV says, ‘That’s it, we’ve got 10 songs.’ He’s the maestro.”
The title cut of the album, which was composed by Haas, also stands as somewhat typical of Nolatet, if that word can even be used pertaining to this atypical quartet. Its intrigue lies in its capacity to be both simple and complex in structure.
Conversations between Nolatet’s members are an important element even before these guys hit the bandstand or the studio.
The pianist recalls when, before the recording of the new album, Vidacovich asked him, “Hey, Haas, what are you trying to say with this ‘No Revenge Necessary?’” “I’m like well, JV, I think we need some timpani on that. So Mikey brought his timpani and sat it next to Vidacovich for the session. And Vidacovich is nailing pitches like a trained symphonic percussionist and using the brushes with his left hand.”
Vidacovich asked the same question about another of Haas’ compositions heard on the recording, “Gracemont.” “It’s about the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma—a place of solace,” Haas replied. “Oh, so you’re thinking about J.S. Bach?” the always hip Vidacovich knowingly asked. “Johnny gets the conversation going,” Haas admiringly acknowledges.
Haas wrote his contributions to the album specifically for Nolatet. “I keep the melodies super clean and strong—something so that Mikey and I can into unison. Michael, James and I have this weird harmonic thing we do together—it’s a unique chromatic trickery. A lot of the harmonic stuff sounds like it’s worked out but I’m thinking theme variations influenced by Beethoven and Mozart. The melody is always there and the harmonies are implied. It’s circular communication.”
One of Haas’ favorite parts of the album is Dillon’s solo on the pianist’s song, “Homer and Debbie,” written for the pianist’s youngest and oldest dogs. (A reminder, Nolatet’s s first release was called Dogs in acknowledgement of Haas’ passion for canines.) “He knew Debbie and she was dying,” Haas explains. It [the song] tells the story of life and death. Mike’s intense solo sort of evokes the chaos that we all experience when we lose a loved one. It sounds unlike anything else on the album. I got more than I bargained for.”
Haas appears “fearless” in the eyes of Singleton and it’s reasonable to presume to Vidacovich and Dillon as well. He attributes his courage to them, his musical heroes. “I know they will catch me when I fall so it’s a pretty blissful place for me.
No Revenge Necessary stands not only as a continuation of ideas explored by these four exemplary musicians on their first release, Dogs, but as an amplification on the theme of freedom, explosion, quietude, outrageous romps and, yes, fun. Or in the words of Johnny Vidacovich, the music of Nolatet is “a circus and a Christmas tree with a lot of lights.”