San Jose Mercury News 2011

Nancy Wright: Saxophonist steps to the front
By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News
January 19, 2011

For years, Oakland-based saxophonist Nancy Wright has wailed behind such top talents as John Lee Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert King and Lonnie Mack. Now she’s stepping to the front of the stage, leading her own trio, playing tunes from her new CD, “Moanin’.” It was produced by Hammond B-3 organist Tony Monaco.

It’s scintillating jazz with soulful, bluesy shadings. “My roots and heart are in blues,” Wright said. “But I’m always trying to push out into the jazz part more, because I love the Hammond organ sound. Sax and organ seem to go really well together in jazz.”

Her trio, which performs at such Bay Area venues as Tressora’s in Campbell and Menlo Park’s Oak City Bar and Grill, features organ and drums. They play soul, jazz, blues, ballads and boogie, standards and originals, shaping the set to the setting.

Her parents encouraged Wright and her four brothers to play musical instruments as children. “I was the only one who was never allowed to stop,” she said, laughing.

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, she went through a series of instruments — piano, violin, harp, harpsichord, flute, bassoon, plus brass in high school marching band. “All the musical training, the theory, the self-discipline, knowing how to practice, it all fed me.”

During her first year of college, at age 16, she discovered saxophone. “At that point, all the other instruments ceased to be so important.”

The university theater department had offered Wright the role of the sax player in “Cabaret.”

“They needed a female saxophonist for the band scenes. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to play sax, but if you can’t find anybody else and you give me a saxophone, I’ll do it.’

“When I first started playing, I knew all the guys in the pit, and they would go, ‘Nancy, how do you get those sounds out of the saxophone?’ I was teaching myself. One guy went, ‘Nancy, you know you have the mouthpiece upside-down?'”

But she loved the instrument and learned its intricacies. She tried baritone, alto and soprano sax, but it was the tenor whose sound proved irresistible to Wright. “For me, the tenor is the most soulful of the horns. And that’s what really speaks to me. That’s what I try to bring into my music. I’ve been able to express myself on sax better than on anything else.”

The emotion of blues fits her sax-playing philosophy.

“Sometimes technique can get in the way of playing blues, because blues is first about feeling and something coming out of your soul. How you express it is almost secondary. So, if you’re playing a lot of notes, because you can, you start to move away from that fundamental thing.

“Whereas jazz, part of the excitement is having these absolutely amazing players who are technically, screamingly proficient and can do all kinds of incredible things at very fast tempos. They still keep feeling and fire into it, but technique comes more to the forefront there.”

Wright decided to see where music could take her. “After I graduated, I was like, ‘Oh, let me get this music thing out of my system before I pick what I want to do when I grow up.’ And I’ve never gotten it out of my system.”

Initially, her gender was an issue. “As a woman, you had to almost be better than the men next to you, to get the gigs. I suppose, if it spurs one to get better at music, maybe it was a blessing. Every now and then I would run into a male musician who just couldn’t accept a female on stage, and there would be some bizarre things around that. But that hasn’t really happened in a very long time, thankfully.”

Blues-rock guitarist/vocalist Lonnie Mack became a mentor. “I got a chance to sit in with him and he was really gracious and encouraging, and told me to come back. Every chance I had after that, I was showing up where Lonnie was playing, and soaking that in.

“I was getting in my ears his approaches to how you solo over some of those standard blues. Everything he did was extremely from the heart. And he had great players with him.”

Wright listened to recordings of saxophonists such as King Curtis, Junior Walker, Lester Young, Stanley Turrentine, Fathead Newman, Gene Ammons, Willis Jackson and Houston Person. “I especially like players with a style that’s soulful and aggressive,” she said “There’s an edge there.”

Wright toured with John Lee Hooker’s Coast-To-Coast Blues Band. “That was such a gift. I was so young then. I just remember moments on stage, the music being so deep, really raw. With John, it was all about the feeling. I got to play Carnegie Hall with John.

“I was warming up in a broom closet and Ornette Coleman opened the door to see who it was. There’s a picture of a very young me, looking up at Ornette.”

Wright, who moved to San Francisco in the early ’80s, continues to serve as a side person for numerous artists. “I have my own group, but I also feel really blessed to get to go out and play with all these wonderful players all the time. It keeps you nimble. I like being able to switch gears, depending on who I’m playing with.

“I’ve had to learn how to be a bandleader and book a band. As a sideman, I was blissfully ignorant of all of that. I certainly have an even greater respect for bandleaders. I look at somebody like Tommy Castro and they know how to read an audience, knowing what kind of tune to play next to keep an audience happy. There’s an art to that. They’ve stocked their repertoire with the right kind of tunes and rhythms. And some of them are so masterful at it. It’s something to strive for.”

Over the last few years, Wright has also been vocalizing. “Some of my favorite vocalists, like Sarah Vaughan, use their voices like an
instrumentalist would. At the same time, you can use the sax as a vocalist would.”

Wright continues to grow and learn. She said of music, “It’s like studying the Bible, you can never finish. It’s something you can spend the rest of your life working on.”

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