Lucas Gillian has a new release coming out entitled Chit-Chatting With Herbie a re-imagining of the 1956 Blue Note LP, Herbie Nichols Trio. We talked with Lucas about his new recording and what it was that drew him to such a unique project.
1. When you were growing up tell us about how you were first drawn to music?
Music was always a big part of my family life. My parents had both played music when they were younger, and my siblings and I were encouraged to pick up an instrument in 4th grade once you could join school band. As the youngest of four, I had already seen all of my older siblings playing music by the time I began drumming. All of us played in our own different rock bands and supported what each other was doing.
2. Early on why were you initially drawn to the drums?
My introduction to drums was fairly unique, because my mom is a drummer. She played at church, and would set up her old drum set at home every once in a while for us to bang on when I was very young. So, I received nothing but encouragement when I decided to play drums at the age of 9. My parents made sure I had good drum teachers from early on. I eventually taught myself guitar and music theory, and took up classical percussion later on, but drums were definitely my first instrument, and I took it seriously from the beginning.
3 What drew you to playing Jazz music?
I’m lucky to have an older brother, Grady, who has always been a voracious music listener. He was in to all sorts of music -- indie rock, hip-hop, ska, electronic music -- but also jazz. At the time that I started playing drums, he was listening to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, as well as some of the ‘90s swing revival stuff like Royal Crown Revue and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Listening to and playing jazz seemed cool to me, whereas most kids might not have been interested in it early on. My parents encouraged it by involving me in a city-wide jazz education program called JazzWerx in my hometown of Tucson, AZ. I participated in that program from 6th grade all of the way until I graduated high school, and it was a huge factor in me taking jazz seriously and wanting to really dig deep into the history and art of the music. Apart from that program, which is now called the Tucson Jazz Institute, I frequented local jam sessions and had a jazz quartet with some friends that played standards as well as original music, and got real world experience gigging and recording. Even though most people wouldn’t think of Tucson, AZ as a hotbed of jazz, it’s actually a great place to get started as a jazz musician. In addition to all of that, I was playing in a lot of punk, metal, and indie rock bands throughout high school, so music was really central to my whole childhood.
4 Of all of the music schools in the country you could have attended you decided on Northern Illinois University to do your undergrad jazz degree?
Even though I grew up in Arizona, my family has roots in Chicago, and I had always known I wanted to eventually move to a big city. I looked at schools all over the country, and seriously considered USC and North Texas, but I also really liked the idea of moving to Chicago. I checked out Northwestern, DePaul and NIU, and there was just something about NIU that really drew me in. When I visited, I got to observe some ensemble rehearsals and even went to a jazz combo concert where I witnessed the students’ creativity, energy, and camaraderie. The head of jazz studies at the time, Ron Carter (not the bass player), was great at getting a band to swing and feel the groove together, and really stressed the importance of the music’s history and African-American roots. NIU also has a great percussion program; the percussion professors were all accomplished classical players, but were involved in world music and jazz too. Also, the level of playing among the student body was just insane: my classmates at the time included Marquis Hill, Chris McBride, Josh Ramos, Stu Mindeman, Mai Sugimoto, Quentin Coaxum, John Tate, Dave Miller, Shirazette Tinnin and many many other folks who have gone on to become incredibly accomplished musicians. You can’t help but be inspired, motivated, and uplifted by going through your education with people like that.
5. Following NIU you attended DePaul and received a Masters of Music in Jazz Studies. Why did you decide to get a Masters of Music and what was the motivation to attend DePaul University?
After about 7 years of being a freelance musician and teacher, I felt like I had settled into a bit of a complacent place as a musician, and was looking for an experience that would motivate me to get to the next level in my drumming and music career. I had been a big fan of Dana Hall’s drumming for a long time, and my friend Juan Pastor (another exceptional former NIU classmate!) told me that he was a great teacher as well. Dana really emphasized the importance of constructive self-criticism, looking for your weaknesses and coming up with ways to tackle them in order to grow musically. And he is obsessive about learning the art of drumming from the masters themselves, knowing the great jazz recordings forwards and backwards and figuring out what you can learn from them.
6 After college you ended up staying in Chicago and calling it your home. What is it about the Chicago Jazz scene that helped you stay in Chicago?
First, there’s just such a great scene in Chicago, you could go see dozens of great shows any night of the week, from jazz to experimental music, folk, classical, indie rock, whatever. It’s a nice city for musicians because it has so much music going on, but it’s not so big and cutthroat that only the top .01% can make a living, like how I’ve heard New York can be. I’ve connected with enough different musicians to maintain a busy playing schedule in a variety of styles. Apart from playing my original music with Many Blessings, I freelance with various other musicians doing straight-ahead, modern, and free improvised jazz, and I’m a member of a soul/pop band called The Right Now, which tours and records quite a bit. Of course, I also do plenty of cover band gigs, weddings, etc. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living playing and teaching in such a great city.
7. You have a new recording out on JeruJazz Records entitled Chit-Chatting With Herbie, a (piano-less) track-by-track re-imagining of his 1956 Blue Note LP, Herbie Nichols Trio. What was it about Herbie Nichols that inspired you to do this recording?
I was fascinated with Herbie Nichols from the moment I learned about him, which was probably around 2008, when I checked out his Complete Blue Note Recordings from a public library. He had such a unique style of composing and improvising way back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and yet he barely got noticed for it. His music can be somewhat reminiscent of Thelonious Monk, who has long been my favorite jazz musician, but it totally has its own perspective. His melodies are so strong and catchy while still being really weird, unpredictable, and even humorous. That’s the kind of balance that I’ve always sought for in my own music, and discovering Herbie was like finding a kindred spirit from half a century ago.
8. In the description of the new recording it mentions a re-imagining of Herbie Nichols Trio recording. Did your studying of composing and arranging help you in the creation of the arrangements for this recording?
I’m sure my training at NIU and DePaul helped me to know how to put the nuts and bolts of the arrangements together. The main thing Tom Matta taught me when I studied arranging with him at DePaul, was simply to work consistently, the more compositions and arrangements you complete and play on the bandstand, the more you’ll grow and refine your craft. So, this project was a great motivator to do just that -- once I signed on to it, ten arrangements were suddenly added to my to-do list. Overall my aim with the Herbie arrangements was to take his music and fit it in with the personal composing style I had already developed with Many Blessings. As I said, I felt like Herbie was a kindred spirit, and I wanted that to come through with this music. If you listen to our all-original debut album, Arroyo, and then listen to Chit-Chatting With Herbie, I’d hope you can hear a continuity in the vibe and spirit between them.
9 You have a release performance on January 10that the Hungry Brain in Chicago. Tell us about your group, who is in it and what people can expect to hear that evening?
My group is called Lucas Gillan’s Many Blessings, and it features Quentin Coaxum on trumpet, Jim Schram on tenor sax, Daniel Thatcher on bass, and myself on drums. I originally started the band while I was a student at NIU, with my then-classmate Marquis Hill on trumpet. I was originally inspired by the two famous, and very different, chordless quartets led by Gerry Mulligan and Ornette Coleman, and thought it would be cool to do my own thing with that concept. I’d like to think we’ve developed a unique and personal sound that incorporates lots of different influences while still staying grounded in melodic and soulful jazz. Quentin, Jim and Dan are all amazing musicians, and they know how to play together really well. While I don’t play with Many Blessings as often as I’d like to due to my involvement in so many other musical projects, we’ve been fortunate to play lots of great venues in Chicago (including this past year’s jazz fest) and we released an album of all-original music, Arroyo, in 2017.
For the January 10th show, we’re approaching it as an album release show as well as a 100th birthday celebration for Herbie Nichols, whose Centennial is January 3, when our album will officially be released. Our set will be all Herbie tunes, and the great pianist Paul Giallorenzo will open the evening, also with an all-Herbie set, with bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Quin Kirchner.
10. What do you have coming up after your performance at the Hungry Brain on January 10th?
I’ve been putting all of my energy and focus into preparing for the album release and the show, so I haven’t booked anything else yet, but I’m hoping to play more shows celebrating the album and Herbie’s music. I figure 2019 is Herbie Nichols’ Centennial year, and we’re doing our release show on January 10, so that gives us another 355 days to celebrate!
Visit www.lucasgillan.com for information about the new recording and upcoming shows.