Near Earth Objects: Hungry for a Sound

by Dean Christesenphotos by Lindsey Prather Upon arriving in Richmond in Summer 2001, bassist Nathan Goodwyn quickly made his move into the city’s live music scene. Seeing groups like Devil’s Workshop every Monday at Bogart’s and Modern Groove Syndicate every Wednesday at Alley Katz acquainted him with some of Richmond’s finest musicians and got the […]

by Dean Christesen
photos by Lindsey Prather

Upon arriving in Richmond in Summer 2001, bassist Nathan Goodwyn quickly made his move into the city’s live music scene. Seeing groups like Devil’s Workshop every Monday at Bogart’s and Modern Groove Syndicate every Wednesday at Alley Katz acquainted him with some of Richmond’s finest musicians and got the ball rolling for musical experiments of his own.

Goodwyn (formerly of Heavy Rotations), Good Dog keyboardist Joey Ciucci and ex-Carbon Leaf drummer Scott Milstead form Near Earth Objects, a new trio that seems to draw influence from the excitement of Medeski Martin & Wood, the subtlety of the Keith Jarrett Trio, and the raw characteristics of each man’s previous projects.

RVAjazz: Tell me about how Near Earth Objects formed.

Nathan Goodwyn: Joey Ciucci is the brother of a very close friend of mine from college. Joey plays keyboards and we’d always talked about getting together. He moved to town after he graduated from [Virginia] Tech, so basically in January we got together and put an ad on Craig’s List for a drummer.

RVAjazz: Of all the people on Craig’s List, Scott Milstead from Carbon Leaf emails you?

NG: Exactly. A bunch of drummers wrote back and all the responses were really interesting. Scott was the only one who showed up to audition. The other guys responded to the ad but never really showed up, and it just so happened that Scott really came in and killed it. It took us about an hour of deliberation and then we offered him the gig.

RVAjazz: So you didn’t have any previous association with Scott before that?

NG: No, I didn’t. I saw a bunch of his stuff on YouTube and elsewhere with Carbon Leaf, and really found his playing tasteful but also really confident. He comes from a school of playing that’s pretty different from ours, maybe in a sense that playing with Carbon Leaf was kind of a pop thing and a rock thing and he brings that sense of groove and interest in the song and all that to the playing. Joey plays with a lot of rock bands that tend more towards the jam scene. You know, the Grateful Dead kind of feel and that kind of thing, which is great in its own way.

RVAjazz: And what about yourself? What kind of music do you lean towards?
NG: Well, when I first moved to town, I started playing with Jack Shannon and what became the Heavy Rotations, originally it was the Switch. It was just a four piece instrumental group featuring Mark Ingraham on trumpet. It was basically one of Mark’s first gigs in town before he became a monster. He’s such an animal on the instrument and he’s such a great player. I actually found him when Devil’s Workshop was playing on Monday nights down at Bogart’s and just really liked Mark’s playing. So [the Switch] was my first gig in town. We’re still kind of doing it although we’ve scaled back. Everyone else has gotten so busy. I’ve always been really interested in this trio idea and loved the idea of the trio from listening to people like Keith Jarrett. The whole concept of that has always really appealed to me. So it’s been perfect timing with this trio as far as what we’re all interested in.

RVAjazz: In your opinion, what’s the difference between jam band and jazz or modern jazz, and where do you think improvisation fits in your music and other kind of music like this?

NG: I think modern jazz is in a really interesting place right now because you hear more musicians focusing on the song. People like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Bill Frisell, John Scofield. If you listen to these guys and their playing, they’re building these unbelievable pieces of music that are about more than somebody just soloing or somebody’s chops. If you think about modern jazz ten years ago, it felt like it was mostly about chops. And that’s important in its own right, but I really love where that modern jazz movement is right now. I would like to think that our music is in that vein in the sense that the emphasis is on the song, and trying to create a space musically and not focus on kind of a means to an end where you’re just trying to get to a solo. I mean solos are important, in terms of building momentum and creating character in a song and a piece of music and all that, but I think that’s kind of the distinction between what we’re doing and what, to use your word, modern jazz is about. I don’t want to dog jam bands. I think it’s cool in its own way. I like a lot of music that would be labeled that, but I don’t think I would call us that, although we do want to maybe appeal to that scene and a lot of the people who would listen to that kind of music. But I don’t think I would describe us as that way.

RVAjazz: I think that’s a very accessible crowd, at least in my experience in Richmond. There seems to be a cross over between some fans of each genre.

NG: Yeah, there is. I think that’s right, maybe more and more so lately, too.

RVAjazz: Now I was reading about Heavy Rotations earlier and there’s something interesting on the Myspace, it was kind of like an equation. It said “early 70s fusion feel + hip-hop and pop grooves + down-tempo techno jazz.”

NG: Yeah [laughs]. I wrote that.

RVAjazz: If you had to create an equation like that for Near Earth Objects, what would it be like?

NG: It would be much simpler than that. I would say…“funky” and I would say “accessible,” much more accessible than the stuff I’ve done with the Heavy Rotations. And I would also say “interesting” mainly because of Scott, especially because of Scott’s interest in making it a song and making it something that’s going to be cohesive. And he’s really smart about not wanting to make it like, just completely far out, avant-garde stuff; he wants to make it stuff that there’s a groove to and everybody can really feel. I guess in that way it is fairly accessible. And you know, it’s energetic too. There are three personalities in the group, but hopefully the feeling that people get is that they’re going to take part in it, you know, the people who are listening. I found that playing with the Heavy Rotations was great, and I often wondered as we got much more avant-garde maybe in the way that we did things–and this is in addition to not playing as many gigs–you know, you start seeing fewer and fewer people come out. You want that feeling of connection to what’s happening but you don’t want to compromise anything. So it’s just trying to walk that tight rope between getting people involved and also not compromising anything. I’d like to think we’re walking that tight rope pretty well.

RVAjazz: Obviously in a trio, all three members are important and each person’s voic

e is very distinctive, but Joey’s Hammond organ definitely sticks out here as the primary voice.

NG: Yeah, for sure. He’s also got a great Clav that he’ll play sometimes which is really cool to hear. Joey’s an excellent player, and Joey is the primary voice in the band. That’s not accidental. He comes to the rehearsals with an idea and Scott and I are kind of his editors. That’s just kind of the way it ends up working out, which is obviously in part just because of the nature of the instrument he plays, but also because he’s at a point where he’s constantly generating ideas. So I think it’s important for Scott and I to recognize that and allow that to happen and also participate in ways that are meaningful. We just finished an arrangement of the Beatles’ tune “Come Together.” Joey brought in this really great groove for that piece, and at that point it wasn’t really an arrangement. So Scott and I worked with him on it and kind of arrived at something that really is an interpretation of the original that we really like. So it is collaborative but Joey brings about 70% of it I would think. And that’s good. He is a hungry player. He wants to get better, he’s like a sponge: he wants to know what’s out there. So it’s a great thing for all of us to be around that energy. You know, Scott, having been with Carbon Leaf for so long, is really hungry to get beyond the restraints of that medium…I’m kind of coming from a different angle because with the stuff I’ve been doing, there really wasn’t much in the way of boundaries, so it’s a nice intersection for the three of us, I think.

RVAjazz: What gigs does the trio have lined up?

NG: We’re going to open for Modern Groove Syndicate on the nineteenth of December at Cary Street [Café]. We’re hopefully going to get a couple more between now and then but right now the focus is on writing and arranging. We just finished the demo at Palmer Wilkins’ studio. Palmer’s an old friend of mine. He works with Stewart Myers down at the studio those guys have down in Louisa. Palmer’s another really hungry guy and he brings a really relaxed feel to the studio so we were real lucky to be working with him. He did a great job on the demos.

RVAjazz: Well one last question: What albums are you listening to right now?

NG: Brian Wilson’s SMiLE.

RVAjazz: Did you hear his newest one, That Lucky Old Sun, yet?

NG: Yeah man, the whole thing sounds incredible. The singing is unbelievable, harmonically. I love everything that’s going on there. Let’s see, Rolling Stones Goat’s Head Soup. Billy Preston’s on that record. Preston’s the great keyboard player. I always go back to Miles’ In A Silent Way record. It’s kind of one of the great ones that I’ll always go back to. I just love that record for all that it is. It’s got a wonderful feel and sound. Let’s see…I’m going to see Bob Weir at The National in November [laughs]. I mean my guilty pleasure is probably the Grateful Dead, especially anything from the late 70s to the early 80s. I think musically, the song catalog and all that they have will stand up to anybody’s in American history, regardless of the sloppy playing which is certainly there from time to time. The songs that they wrote are classics. So I will always go back to that. You know, I’m standing here in my backyard with a tie-dye on right now.

Near Earth Objects are performing this Thursday at VCU’s Singleton Center for the Performing Arts at 7pm as part of the Pollack Awards Ceremony. The group will also be appearing at Commercial Taphouse on December 14 and at the Cary Street Cafe opening for Modern Groove Syndicate on Dec. 19.

View Near Earth Objects on the web.

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Dean Christesen

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