San Jose Mercury News 2016

Workhorse East Bay saxophonist Nancy Wright has new CD, series of Bay Area shows

By Andrew Gilbert | Correspondent

December 20, 2016

Nancy Wright set out to record a stripped-down album celebrating her musical roots. But the Oakland saxophonist and vocalist ended up with the star-studded “Playdate!” (VizzTone), a project that unfolds like a jam-packed late-night blues party.

Dedicated to her late mentor, the pioneering blues/rock guitarist Lonnie Mack, the album features an illustrious guest on almost every track. Wright’s former employers Elvin Bishop and Joe Louis Walker drop in with some serious grit. The guitarslingers Chris Cain, Tommy Castro, and Mighty Mike Schermer each get a scorching work out. And the powerhouse vocalists Wee Willie Walker, Frank Bey and Terrie Odabi provide a surfeit of soul.

One of the most sought after horn players on the Bay Area blues and soul scene, Wright has been carving out an identity as a bandleader in her own right over the past few years. She’d long thought about making an album “that musically documents where I came from and the people who influenced me, but I didn’t go into the studio thinking I was going to have so many special guests,” says Wright, who celebrates the release of “Playdate!” Dec. 30 at San Jose’s Poor House Bistro with her Rhythm & Roots Band.

“It kind of morphed,” she says, “and a lot of that was through the encouragement of Kid Andersen,” the Norwegian-born guitarist who produced, recorded and mixed the album at his award-winning Greaseland Studios in San Jose, while also contributing dexterous rhythm guitar work.

Always looking to reach new audiences, Wright’s not ready to abandon gigs as a side player, like her regular appearances as a featured soloist with guitarist Tommy Castro on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise (which departs again in January).

“If it’s feasible, I would like to take my own music out on the road and tour,” she says. “But it’s a lot of work serving as my own agent and manager. I just did a run with Mike Schermer playing this great, intense music, and I just have to show up and let it rip. I don’t know what an ideal balance would be.”

Released at the end of 2014, Wright’s previous album “Putting Down Roots” made a compelling case for her as a triple threat, showcasing her songwriting and vocal skills alongside her commanding horn work. She didn’t envision getting back in the studio to make a new album for several years, but then her old friend and mentor Lonnie Mack introduced her to his unrecorded tune “Been Waiting That Long.” When she got home, she started planning to record the song with Andersen, and the project quickly snowballed.

It seems entirely fitting that Mack pointed the way for Wright’s next chapter, as she credits him with jump-starting her blues career in the early 1980s. She was miserably marking time with a pop band in a Marriott Hotel in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio, when she encountered the guitarist, who died in April at the age of 74.

“He invited me to sit in, and I immediately felt, this is the stuff!” Wright recalls. “Every time I sat in, I’d play a tune and try to leave the stage and he’d keep me up there with him. It was an amazing mentorship with this blue-eyed soul singer and brilliant guitarist playing everything from the heart. It was a magical gift. I wouldn’t be playing today if I hadn’t met Lonnie.”

These days, it’s hard to find a night when Wright’s not playing on a stage somewhere. She performs with David Sturdevandt and the Medicine Ball Band at Oakland’s Terrace Room on Dec. 22 and the Back Room in Berkeley on Dec. 29. And she joins S.E. Willis and the Willing at the Poor House in San Jose on Dec. 23 and Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco on Dec. 28.

A longtime member of Elvin Bishop’s band, Willis is a veteran keyboardist and accordion player who likes to combine various currents of American roots music, particularly blues, zydeco and old-time country. He’s featured Wright on every album since 2003, and whenever possible adds her into the Willing mix with fellow Elvin Bishop bandmates Ruth Davies on bass and Bobby Cochran on drums.

“When I can have a fourth member, I always call Nancy, though her solo career has been taking off,” he says. “I don’t feel any need to have guitar on my stuff. I like the balance of two men and two women. Her early mentor was Lonnie Mack, who stands right on that line between blues and country, and she always sounds great.”

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