Marius Nordal is an unusual musician of many parts. Many know him as "Butch" Nordal, the big band writer who wrote iconic pieces such as "Suncatchers" and "Liferaft Earth." Others know his work as a witty, somewhat cutting journalist who has interviewed luminaries such as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Branford Marsalis. Then there is Nordal the amazing jazz pianist whose recent releases on the Origin label have delighted serious jazz fans around the world. Finally, there is his work as an educator. He taught college for 25 years and can now be seen in over 40 videos on YouTube covering a variety of jazz topics rarely touched upon by others.
Marius Nordal grew up in Seattle after moving there from New Orleans at the age of seven. After several years of piano lessons he became an accomplished boogie woogie and blues player and started playing in public at age 13. "My little debut created quite a stir because rock ‘n’ roll was brand new to white America and hard-driving blues was seen as a moral issue by middle class parents…that’s hard to understand today. Back then Chuck Berry and Elvis were seen as part of a Communist plot to undermine the morals of teens!"
"I still wonder if my DNA had picked up a strand of the blues in New Orleans. I was old enough when I left there to recall riding the trolley cars, smelling food in the streets and seeing musicians playing for change on the waterfront. We also took flat bottom boats out on the muddy bayous to go catfishing. It almost sounds like describing a movie, but that’s what New Orleans is: a city of sensory delights."
"During my high school years," Nordal continues, "I grew up during the last few years of an eclectic, bluesy era where Miles Davis, Count Basie, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Bill Doggett co-existed with Doris Day, Pat Boone, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. You could even hear any of them on a single radio station! At that time, elegant, black-tie celebrities like Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Grace Kelly were being replaced with brooding, leather-jacketed rebels like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Miles Davis and Elvis Presley. It was a threatening time for suburbia everywhere…I loved it! It seemed that some of New Orleans’ subculture funkiness had followed me north."
At age 19 Nordal attended the Oscar Peterson school in Toronto and had his career split between playing B-3 Hammond organ gigs in blues clubs and working jazz jobs, mostly with musicians one generation older. "By the time I turned 21, I sensed that I would want to write music," he says. "I was sensing a need to create great dramas and found that gigs rarely required any of that. My arranging models, way back then, were Oscar Peterson’s trio with Herb Ellis and lots of Errol Garner. Contrary to current myths, Miles and Monk and Dizzy were not the big jazz stars of the day…it was Oscar and Errol and Ahmad Jamal who filled big theaters. It was frustrating and inspiring to hear all that amazing music recorded in front of arena-sized crowds and then find that local gigs never required much of anything."
At this precise time in Nordal’s history, the comfortable button down, Eisenhower era vibe suddenly ended in late 1963. JFK was assassinated in November of that year and within 3-4 months the Beatles hit big time. "That’s when the 1950s really ended," Nordal says. "That comfortable Eisenhower world we all knew was gone. The dapper coolness of Miles’ ‘Kind of Blue’ and the wholesome, conservative pop music and blues scene was instantly changed." This "new" era of modernity turned out to be much more edgy, European and varied than the past. That sense of an ironic, anti-establishment, youth oriented culture established way back then is still with us today.
Within a few years of the tragic events of 1963, the jazz world had also been revolutionized by John Coltrane and the youthful Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wes Montgomery, Charles Lloyd, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. The pop music world was being shattered by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa. Even the classical and art worlds were being challenged by John Cage, Kristof Penderecki and Andy Warhol.
"For several years during these turbulent times, until I was about 25, I worked in a remarkable seven piece horn group called ‘The Pacific Northwest Territory Band’," Nordal continues. "We worked about 200 gigs a year and I wrote countless arrangements. It was remarkable because the band played every kind of music that existed…we had a sound guy and a road manager and we never had subs…"
It was during this period of totally unfettered social and musical freedom that Nordal changed from being a pianist to a writer. "Listeners wanted their minds blown during those crazy times," he says, "and I was actually paid to develop and write new stuff that would, hopefully, put people in a state of ecstasy! As a writer, you can leverage your talent…like, create perfect soundscapes to which other players then add their talents. My friends were all playing kind of dumb, casual gigs, often with players they barely knew…a lot of them quit the music in their mid-twenties." Feeling increasingly claustrophobic in the Northwest, Nordal left Seattle at age 25 as a mature musician to study composition at North Texas State University.
"When I arrived in Texas, there were 1200 music majors. A few years later when I left, there were 2000!…there was a world class student orchestra, opera company and 12 big bands too. There were a lot of geniuses there that had talent that can never be explained. It was my first contact with big talent that required little or no practice to develop….except, in this case, everybody worked very hard too! It was a place in which you could transcend yourself. Everybody had their stories where, after a couple of years, people in their hometown barely recognized them anymore. "
The years surrounding 1970 were also a watershed for the American cultural scene. It seemed that everything, for better or worse, was new or changed.
"I felt like Forrest Gump," Nordal continues, "I was present and active at the dawn of a new era of jazz studies, civil rights, the anti-war movement, the ecology movement, the moon landing, Jimi Hendrix, Pop art, women’s liberation, Miles’s early fusion music, psychedelia, the Sumer of Love and all the rest…Texas had a natural blues culture and was Garden of Eden for anyone who was creative."
During this time, Nordal’s most satisfying and productive writing was found in his big band pieces of the 1970s, many of which are still the most demanding, adventuresome and well known works of the entire era. He has a very organized, edgy, yet classical, music sensibility that had been irradiated with his blues band experiences and forged in an emotionally charged era. This resulted in such notable pieces as "Liferaft Earth," "Fancy," "Suncatchers," "Oregon" and his still amazing arrangements of "Moon River" and "Blues and The Abstract Truth."
"I wrote about 35 major big band charts during that period. I published them through my own company and a few through C.L. Barnhouse Co." Nordal says. "Things took off like a rocket and I could barely keep up. I evidently wrote with authority of the older generation of writers but, in my youthful state, wrote stuff that reflected the times too. There was no competition because the real geniuses like Thad Jones hadn’t even started publishing their arrangements yet!…there were a lot of bootleg big band pieces around, but they were pretty much just record copies of ancient stuff by Basie, Kenton and Woody Herman."
When he was still in the Dallas area, Nordal had been on the road with such pop stars of the day as Richard Harris, Cher and The Supremes. He also spent a year in a large studio production company as a full time pianist, arranger, conductor and contractor.
"It was a confusing time," he says. "I was doing some great jazz writing that everybody seemed to respond to…I was also basking in the excitement of arena shows with big stars. I was really happy for a minute there working with world class studio musicians in Dallas and it seemed that all the universities wanted me too! I sensed though, that all the pop stuff would get old pretty quick. In any case, I was about 30 years old and I felt that it was time to follow a path in which I had a chance to age gracefully."
Nordal moved back to Seattle to teach college in mid-1970s and spent the next 10 years dividing his time between teaching, writing, managing his successful music publishing company, doing festival appearances and playing the piano. He had been able to take advantage of the brief resurgence of big bands in the 1970s when they again enjoyed a few moments as a creative force in the jazz world.
"Some outstanding jobs had come my way before I moved back to Seattle," Nordal says, "but they all involved a choice between either a great lifestyle or a career. Washington is an ecological and intellectual paradise and currently quite the center of new jazz talent and recordings…I’ve never regretted being in Seattle."
By the mid-1980’s, Nordal had stopped band writing and returned to playing in public and writing non-jazz pieces for saxophone, marimba and piano. During this time he kept in various activities in separate "boxes."
"Teaching was fun for me because I just did electronic music, piano and jazz history, all things that were "live" arts. My non-jazz writing was also seriously interesting for me because it too was about the moment. But my commercial playing in public was just for fun…pure jazz gigs always seemed kind of somber. The musicians always thought there was a problem with the audience, the pay, the tune selection, the acoustics or the drummer or something…so much cynicism! Very few players bring jazz up to an artistic level, so I remember wishing they maybe could lighten up a bit and treat it as just entertainment."
"Throughout the ‘80s, jazz was really dead as an art form," Nordal recalls. "It was pretty much relegated to white-collar campus radio stations and high school bands. In the national arena, things were being marched backwards to the 1930s and ‘40s by Wynton Marsalis and conservative corporate financing. The original, brilliant ‘young Lions’ who created the original 60 years of jazz had, seemingly, been replaced by the young lambs or, as some people call them, the ‘young fogies.’ Even Keith Jarrett was playing old standards."
After about a decade of creative "rest," which was occupied by just teaching college and playing 100 jobs a year, Nordal began his current string of piano recordings in 1998 with his first release, "Notoriety," followed by "Ways of The Hand" and followed with "Boomer Jazz" in late 2009.
One striking feature of these piano recordings, aside from a complete command of the keyboard, is the unusual musical clarity and sense of purpose with which he speaks.
"Hey, I wasn’t really a keyboard guy," he explains. "I was a paper and pencil composer who spent years researching and conjuring up ideas and musical solutions. When I eventually came back to piano in recent years, I found that I had stopped just quoting licks and scales and was playing some real ideas. By physically abandoning the piano to write, my fingers lost their prejudices because I was really hearing things."
Speaking of the last few years and the future, Nordal says "I built a new house, my daughter was born in 1998, I retired from college teaching in 2001, I did some fairly serious jazz journalism and released three recordings, all in about ten years," Nordal says, "all in all, I’m happy with that. So many people I know just do the same stuff over and over for years…like in that movie, "Ground Hog Day" in which Bill Murray relives that same day over for eternity. It’s good to change…kind of like a snake shedding its old skin. A lot of artistic people get frustrated at times but it takes a lot of work to transcend oneself. I think sometimes players find that there isn’t much employment or acclaim for what they do and they simply stop improving. Also, society has moved on from the decade or so of music from their youth. I too, had my own little decade of big band writing that I kind of owned, but that has passed…I’d have a heart attack if someone forced me to write another band piece!"
Nordal is currently working on a new recording of piano music by the Russian genius Nikolai Kapustin and writing a book on pentatonic scale concepts.
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