It may come as some surprise that trumpeter Nabaté Isles, an accomplished and (by some standards) mid-career musician, just recently released his first album as a leader. That, in large part, is due to Isles’ career in the world of sports media, production, and entertainment, having been the host of So Much to Talk about on Manhattan cable, SiriusXM’s NBA Radio, and winner of both ESPN’s Stump The Schwab and Crackle/NBC Sports’ Sports Jeopardy. Leading two careers at once, Isles is no stranger to music, having played in big bands lead by Christian McBride, Oliver Lake, Mike Longo, and Charli Persip. His musical upbringing includes all forms of jazz, R&B, pop, Motown, as well as exposure to classical music from his time at Eastman school of Music.
Isles held nothing back on his debut solo release, Eclectic Excursions, produced by Sam Barsh. Featuring sixteen tracks with myriad influences, the album includes an outrageous lineup, far too long to list here in its entirety, but including such notables as Christian McBride, Nate Smith, Ben Williams, Johnathan Blake, Jimmy Owens, David Gilmore, Stacy Dillard, Jaleel Shaw, Frank Lacy, Alita Moses, and Michael Mayo. We spoke with Isles via phone about the full intersection of influences and experiences represented by his new album.
TJG: How goes the preparation for the show?
Nabaté Isles: It’s going well, I’m looking forward to it. We’re doing pretty much all music from the record, and most of the cats that were on the album are playing on the show.
TJG: You’re kidding! There were so many people on the album, how could they all fit on that stage?
NI: [Laughs] It’s going to be a somewhat condensed group, including Stacy Dillard on saxophones, David Gilmore on guitar, Adam Klipple on keyboards, Ben Williams on bass, Johnathan Blake and Jaimeo Brown on drums, all of whom were on the record except Jaimeo, who couldn’t make it. We’ll also have Jimmy Owens, of course, my musical dad, and flautist Elsa Nilsson.
TJG: That’s still only a fraction of the people on Eclectic Excursions—you really pulled out all the stops for this album. How did you keep track of the logistics involved? I imagine it must have taken a lot of work.
NI: I have to tell you, it actually didn’t take a lot of work. Everything went off without a hitch. Around May of 2017, I wrote down a list of everyone who I wanted to be on the album, and then contacted them to ask about the last week of November, after Thanksgiving weekend, because a lot of people are in town during that time, yet not much is happening then. Basically, everyone was free to do the session, which was amazing. Johnathan Blake, David Gilmore, Jaleel Shaw, we go back more than twenty years, and it was great to be able to bring them all together. The planning and organizational process beforehand, now that took time. I wanted to make sure everything was straight for these cats to feel comfortable and relaxed in the studio. We did two major days at The Bunker Studio. I came up with a schedule based on who was playing what, because I didn’t want many people waiting around. It was kind of like a Rubik’s Cube, getting all of the colors organized together.
TJG: So, sixteen tracks over two days? That’s wild.
NI: It was, man. We actually did ten tracks over those two days, then booked another date in January to finish all of the other elements and overdubs, with Elena Pinderhughes and a few others. But the majority of the tracks on the album were recorded during those two November days. It worked out beautifully, I’m so happy with the music and everyone who recorded on it. I was very influenced by Quincy Jones and his records: When you talk about eclectic, he’s the one. Body Heat, The Dude, Walking in Space, Back on the Block, these albums influenced me to have jazz and improvisational music as the root, and all of the other elements of American music that stem from jazz and improvisation as the branches. Eclectic Excursions is all about going on a journey with those branches, those musical elements, all with improvisation and groove at the root.
TJG: Did your time in Christian McBride’s Big Band teach you a lot about getting people together, musically and logistically?
NI: Oh yes. Being in Christian’s big band, and big bands lead by Oliver Lake, Mike Longo, Charli Persip, and others, taught me not only about logistical execution, but about community, about family. Each of those bands are like family to me, and I wanted to bring that atmosphere to the album by including musicians I’ve toured with, played with, hung out with for so long. That family and community feeling was so important to me in cultivating this album.
TJG: I checked out a recent interview you did with Couleurs Jazz where they asked “What is Jazz?” You replied “Jazz is honesty,” and talked about how it celebrates our ability to express and share our experiences. I wonder how that idea more specifically relates to this album.
NI: I’ve been influenced by so many types of music throughout my life, and this album comes from the standpoint that I’ve always marched to my own drum. I’ve never believed in just fitting in: I’ve always been honest about who I am and what I’m about. I was twelve or thirteen when I started to really want to play, and was influenced by the golden age of hip hop and R&B in the 80s and 90s. My mother got me hip to music from Motown and Atlantic Records, Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Ohio Players, the groove stuff, all those great artists.
At the same time, I loved classical music and symphonies, especially Mahler, Stravinsky, and Dvořák. The Dvořák cello concerto is, to this day, one of my favorite pieces of any kind of artistic endeavor. On the new album, I arranged musical elements from the opening act of Wozzeck, my favorite opera, using elements from 80s Go-go music and electric R&B. It was great to go to Eastman School of Music, because it was mostly a classical school, and I could delve into scores, talk to great classical musicians, ask about what inspired them, see operas, and do some symphonic playing. That allowed me to build a sense of Western music history, and bring it into my love for groove music, jazz, and my upbringing in urban New York. That’s honesty, to me.
TJG: Tell me a little more about your approach to Wozzeck, and where you began in terms of arranging it for the album.
NI: I’ll never forget when I heard that opening act. It was freshman year in college. I had the Pierre Boulez recording, and was amazed by all of the jazz elements. Alban Berg was ostracized in Nazi Germany, and his music was categorized with jazz. He was bringing the atonal element, and you know about Nazi Germany and the arts. I’ve returned to Wozzeck throughout the years, and thought it might be something I’d want to do down the road. Last year, when I was prepping the music for the album, I felt that I wanted Wozzeck to be there. I created an arrangement based on improvising and stretching melodic and harmonic fragments. It’s such an intense, hard-hitting opera, and I gravitate toward music that wants to pull you in.
TJG: I also want to ask about “Grab Her by the What?!*&#$!?” When did you write it, and what’s the underlying message relating to that quote that we all unfortunately now know so well?
NI: Exactly. When that came out on Access Hollywood and it got Billy Bush fired, I knew I wanted to write something trippy. The trap feel is big in hip hop now, and I think there should be more instrumental trap pieces out there. I wanted the groove to be mysterious, reflecting our confusion about what’s going on in the government today. The bottom line is treating women with respect. So when those comments became public, I just couldn’t believe it. That’s what the piece is about.
TJG: Now, I’ve done over a hundred interviews for Jazz Speaks, and have never spoken with anyone who had a deep interest in sports: You’ve made a career out of it! Could you tell me a little about your life in the sports world, and how it has influenced your musical work?
NI: I grew up with music and sports. If I wasn’t practicing, I was watching an NBA game or something on ESPN. I also played sports when I was younger, but when I stopped playing in high school, my passion for sports didn’t go away. I’ve been on three game shows and have won two of them. Winning Stump the Schwab made me realize how much I love to talk about sports on air, and that I really know my stuff. So I decided to do a public-access television show called So Much to Talk About, which is still on Manhattan Cable and has been for over twelve years. Today I cover mostly NBA, and I produce the evening NBA show on SiriusXM Radio. I’ve been blessed to delve into the sports world and build contacts over the years. I’m entrenched in it. When I see athletes, agents, PR people, they know who I am, and I can have conversations with them. I’m immersed in the world.
That’s what initially kept me from doing my debut album. I was exploring, going on an excursion with my passion for sports. Music is my first love, but there’s more to me than music, and exploring sports, even being able to make a career out of it, was really big. It influenced the record by making me more mature, more organized, and helping me grow professionally. It was good to do the album when I was ready to do it, instead of forcing it too early. In my late twenties, there was a time when I felt like I was going to record an album, but I wasn’t ready to put it out there. Now, I’m glad I took the sports journey though my thirties, establishing myself in the sports world as a producer and host. A lot of my colleagues from that world didn’t know I have a musical background, and recently they’ve been supporting the album. It’s been awesome.
TJG: It sounds like it! I was surprised when I learned that alongside your music and sports career, you had also won Sports Jeopardy a few years ago.
NI: That was fun, and there’s a funny story. That was in LA, and we had to pay for our flights, so I said to myself, “Man, if I’m going to come all this way for this show, I better win this” [laughs]. They do rehearsals for these televised game shows, so you know what the structure is and you don’t make a fool out of yourself when they start taping. But in the rehearsal, I was having trouble with the buzzer, and wasn’t beating my opponents during the rehearsal. I thought, “I need to make an adjustment.” So this is what I did: If you look at the board of the game show, it lights up after the question, so I thought of it musically, rhythmically, as “one-e,” as in “one-e-and-a,” the second sixteenth note. I thought of it like, “When the light goes on, that’s the downbeat, and I come in on the second sixteenth.” If you watch the show, I ended up beating my opponents on most of the questions, because of the rhythm thing. That’s how music helped me win Sports Jeopardy.
Nabaté Isles performs music from Eclectic Excursions at The Jazz Gallery on Monday, September 10, 2018. The group features Mr. Isles on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on saxophones, David Gilmore on guitar, Adam Klipple on keyboards, Ben Williams on bass, Johnathan Blake and Jaimeo Brown on drums, plus special guests. One set at 9:30 P.M., preceded by David Adewumi and Beheld at 7:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for both sets. Purchase tickets here.