Katonah, NY native Nir Felder burst on the scene six years ago with his debut Golden Age that garnered praise from many corners, some hailing him as “the next big jazz guitarist.” Since then Felder has honed his chops both touring with his trio and serving as a sideman for formidable players such as Erykah Badu, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette, Brad Mehldau, Meshell Ndegeocello, John Mayer, Chaka Khan, Common, Dave Chappelle and the Dave Matthews Band. He’s appeared with less luminous names too, such as Chase Baird’s recent album A Life Between. Now he’s releasing his second album as a leader, simply entitled II.
Maybe Felder is making up somewhat for some lost time as he plans to release another album, 2.1, in the fall also on Ropeadope. Recorded with his trio, double bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jimmy MacBride, the album blurs both genres and styles. The trio recorded live with overdubs as these instruments were later added: Theremin, Rhodes, guitar, synthesizer, sampler, banjo, and mandolin. Felder explains that he wanted to tell two complete stories. “I felt like I was kind of stretched along these lines,” he says. “Lines between genres, lines between being a guitar player who plays melodically versus one who plays texturally. Or being into rock and pop versus being a jazz purist. Or looking towards the past versus looking towards the future. It felt less like I had to choose the exact point on the spectrum where I wanted to live, and more like I could embrace the fact that it is an infinite spectrum… With these two records, I wanted to search inside myself and see what sounds I could pull out from deep within. What was waiting inside there that wanted to be expressed…With music, you get the most joy out of it — and you communicate the best — when you’re really honest about who it is that you are,” says Felder.
The album’s first single, “Fire in August” has been released along with a video that conjures up the mode of this health pandemic with imagery of New York City, grocery shopping, kitchen prep, and public transportation. Early in the video, an educational film depicts the crater of a volcano as if a metaphor for NYC being the epicenter of the viral pandemic. The now Brooklyn-based Felder admits the video is a kind of love letter to New York.
The opening tune, “The Longest Star,” sets the stage for what’s to follow. You’ll hear a banjo behind the mournful electric guitar melody and counter melody. Interestingly, the song was originally written on the banjo with the droning high-G a central element for what Felder feels is a traveling song. We also have the opposite effect on “Coronation,” where Felder’s jangly, slightly overdriven guitar lines float about Penman’s bass and the jazz waltz drumming of MacBride’s brushes. Acoustic guitar is dubbed in so subtly that it’s easy to miss. Yet it’s one of those textural elements that Felder referenced before, essential to creating a mood of stillness. It’s a reflective piece, or better said in these times, a stay-at-home piece.
“Big Heat” nods to NYC in a different way. Its bluesy notes and brass samples are representative of a band Felder led in the early 2000s. “I would put together groups of improvisers, maybe six or eight people, usually with two drummers,” he recalls. “It would be people like Nate Smith, Mark Giuliana, Dave Binney, Chris Speed, Tim LeFebvre, Adam Rogers, and Uri Caine, and we would all just improvise a set or two sets of music.” Felder tries to capture that spirit of freedom through shifting textures and several challenging time signatures. “It’s time,” a vocal sample from the Dakota Sioux actor and musician Floyd Red Crow Westerman explains. “Nothing stays the same.” Penman and MacBride become very prominent as the tune climaxes.
Felder is carving out his own place among jazz guitarists. One gets the sense he’s still restless and experimental but maybe versatility and unpredictability will be his hallmarks going forward anyway.