Lake County Record-Bee 2015
Smooth Sax at the Soper Reese
April 16, 2015
By Jennifer Gruenke, firstname.lastname@example.org, @rbjgruenke on Twitter
Lakeport >> In 1983 saxophonist Nancy Wright traveled to the Bay Area from Dayton, Ohio. She never went back.
During a layover on a flight to Tasmania to visit her parents, she scored a spot in a San Francisco-based band. “I never finished the round-trip,” Wright said. “I went to Australia, visited my parents and then came back and just called my old roommate in Dayton and said, ‘Could you put my stuff on a Greyhound bus please?'”
Wright has been playing in Bay Area-based bands ever since. She’s recorded two CDs and is currently promoting her sophomore album. She’ll be performing at the Soper Reese Theatre in downtown Lakeport Friday, April 17 at 7 p.m.
Though she’s performed at the Blue Wing multiple times over the years, this will be Wright’s first show at the theater. “A local saxophone player, Jim Leonardis, was the first person who said to me, ‘I think you should play the Soper Reese,’ and I was like, ‘Really? Okay, we’ll check it out.'” Wright clearly liked what she saw.
With music consisting of both originals and covers, Wright and her backing band will be performing a broad spectrum of blues music. “This CD, I call it a blues roots CD,” she said. “So it’s got a couple tunes that are straight ahead blues. It’s got some funk, some R&B, some New Orleans flavors and some gospel.”
It’s a bit of a departure from her first album. “I loved the music of Tony Monaco. He’s one of the top organ jazz players on the planet. I had an opportunity to record with him,” Wright said. “So that was in soul jazz genre, which was kind of a stretch for me. But it was a stretch I wanted to make. For this album, the stretch for me was writing all the material myself and doing the vocals because on the other album it was all instrumentals.”
Even though she didn’t record vocals for her first CD, she wasn’t a stranger to singing when tackling her own songs. “I’ve recorded on other people’s albums. They’ve had me sing,” Wright said. “Macy Blackman … has actually been very — excuse the word — instrumental in getting me to do more vocals. He got me in his band and said, ‘Here, I want you to sing this song, I want you to sing this duet.’ And then people would tell me that they liked it.”
After her debut album, Wright discovered that she needed to lend her voice to some of her own tracks. “When I was promoting my first CD I felt like, you can’t do instrumentals all night. People want to be sung to. So I said, ‘I’ll sing a couple novelty blues numbers like Jimmy Smith did.’ And people liked that so I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll add a few more.’ It just kept going.”
Wright draws heavy musical influence and inspiration from many people she’s known personally. “Huge influence on me, one was Lonnie Mack. I think they call him the godfather of Rock and Roll Guitar,” she said. “At the first point I was considering playing music I was in Ohio and I was playing a lounge band … and I was just miserable. I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m not gonna do this anymore.’ And then I met Lonnie Mack and I was like, ‘That’s the stuff.’ Any time he was playing I could show up with my horn and he would get me up on stage and I got to play with just fabulous, fabulous musicians.”
Tony Monaco, an organist with whom Wright recorded her first CD, also played a huge part in her musical career. “There’s just a couple key performers that I’ve gotten to work with that just swept me away,” she said. “But I’m also totally influenced by just about everybody I work with.”
Wright wasn’t always a blues roots or a soul jazz musician. As a young girl, she was classically trained in piano. “My parents had all the kids start playing and my brothers were all allowed to stop and I was the one that they said, ‘No you have to keep taking the piano lessons because you have talent,’ she said.
When Wright discovered her current instrument, everything changed. “I played a lot of different instruments before I got to saxophone but when I got to saxophone … I found out what improvisation was because up until that point I had been classically trained,” she said. “I had a chance to do some improvisation which I didn’t really know I could do. And I thought, ‘Well this is the stuff and this is the instrument.’ So I stopped playing everything else.”
Aside from the improvisation, Wright was attracted to the sound of the saxophone. “It’s tenor, that’s the only one I play … So there’s something about that voice,” she said. “It’s a lower voice, it just speaks to me. It’s a really expressive instrument. You can do a lot with it.”
It wasn’t long before Wright decided she needed to get out of her hometown. “I was playing in Dayton, Ohio and I realized I was a big fish in a small pond and I was like, ‘Okay, I either should take the music thing seriously and go to a bigger city and try and compete or just hang the saxophone up and get married,'” She said. “And I chose to go to another city.”
Wright’s first tour with John Lee Hooker was monumental for many reasons. “It was a fabulous tour. We played Carnegie Hall and Robert Cray was the opening act and Willie Dixon was on the bill and I’m like this young green kid just going, ‘Wow, this is cool,'” Wright recalled.
During the tour, she was also introduced to a musician who helped her to her first job with a Bay Area band. “The bass player from that band, John’s band, was from the west coast and so he told the drummer out here about me and the drummer was crazy enough to call me in Ohio and ask if I would come audition for a New Orleans bar band in San Francisco,” she said.
She got the a spot in the band, but as she describes it, her intention was never to pursue music as a full-time career. “I can’t say I woke up one day and said, ‘I need to be a professional musician and play in a Blues band,'” Wright said. “It happened to me. It wasn’t my idea.”
There have been times when Wright needed to juggle both her music and a day job, but she always found a way to make it work. “I used to get up and practice before I went to work because I knew when I came home from work at that eight-to-five job, I would not have the energy to do it,” she said. So I would get up and practice in the morning just before I went to work. That’s my best time, it’s going to the most important thing.”
For that last 15 years, Wright has been working as an independent consultant, which has given her more flexibility to play music, but recently she’s taken a sabbatical of sorts. “I made a deal; as long as I do this CD, then I can take a couple months off and I haven’t gone back. Those couple months off, they keep getting stretched out. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do in the future but right now I’m all in.”
The show at the Soper Reese wont only showcase Wright’s talent, but her backing band’s music chops as well. “It’s gonna be a great show,” Wright said. “These are world-class musicians I’m playing with. This band, we’re actually going to be in Italy pretty much the whole month of July … So we go around the world together. We played up in Canada and we’ve toured the U.S. a bit. And they play fabulously together so it’s going to be a really exciting show and I hope [people] come ready to dance.”
Wright is also excited to be back in the area. “I’ve been coming up to play in Lake County for I don’t know how many years now and I’ve been playing at the Blue Wing,” she said. “I love coming up here and the people that I’ve met and I just think it’s a beautiful part of the world to be in.”