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Grammy nominee Nicolay is now in 'Session'

by +FE on January 19, 2012 at 8:15 AM · Comments
The last time the Dutch-born, Wilmington-based producer and musician Nicolay made a public appearance locally was about five years ago. It wasn't even a gig, per se, just a DJing session at the late, great night spot Bella Festa.

Things were a little different back then for Nicolay, who plays a gig on Tuesday at the Soapbox with exploratory jazz group The Hot @ Nights out of Raleigh.

His Grammy nomination, for Best Urban/Alternative track, from his group The Foreign Exchange's song "Daykeeper," had yet to occur. In fact, The Foreign Exchange, the duo Nicolay shares with Raleigh-based vocalist Phonte Coleman, was so obscure they were known to only the hippest of hip-hop heads.

Five years later, however, the Foreign Exchange has parlayed its Grammy nomination into a deeply devoted following that allowed the group to book its biggest-ever tour in 2011, not to mention allowing Nicolay to build up nearly 19,000 Twitter followers. (Phonte, a former vocalist with the hip-hop group Little Brother, has nearly 47,000.)

He's also taken quite the musical journey, from hip-hop to more of a soul/R&B/pop vibe with FE - even covering a James Taylor tune and doing a country version of a Foreign Exchange song on a live album - and expanding on his 2009 solo effort "City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya" on a live album with the Hot @ Nights.

"You couldn't write it or predict it," Nicolay said during a phone interview from the Wilmington home he shares with wife and business partner, Aimee Flint, who does the bulk of FE's promotional work. "The thing I'm most proud of is we did it our way" - that is, independently. "We didn't have to put any water in the wine."

The band has never been on a label, one of the first of such groups to take such a purely independent approach to the Grammy level.

Certainly, his collaboration with the Hot @ Nights - a group of young jazz virtuosos playing instrumental music - is an example of following what's creatively compelling rather than what might have mass commercial appeal, even though FE has managed to find financial success on a small scale.

The Hot @ Nights are made up eight-string guitar player Chris Boerner, who plays guitar with FE's touring band; Matt Douglas (of Justin "Bon Iver" Vernon's indie soul supergroup Gayngs) on sax; and Nick Baglio (of Michael Jackson tribute act Who's Bad) on drums.

"It is jazz and it is very experimental," Nicolay said. "Foreign Exchange has always been kind of the opposite," with more structured, pop-style songs.

Jazz has always been a big influence on Nicolay - he studied jazz and classical music theory during college in The Netherlands - "but I've never really gone there," he said. "I've always wanted to do a project where there was no studio or sequencers, just four guys playing."

For the "Shibuya Session" EP - the EP designation is a bit of misnomer, since one song, "Crossing," is seven and a half minutes, longer than some EPs - rather than weeks or even months of production, like he does with FE, the album was recorded in a day and they left in all the "mistakes." Even so, it's remarkable how clean the sound is, and how closely it follows the formula set down on the original "Shibuya" album, which was inspired by a trip to Japan. Even though the songs are instrumental, they tell stories.

"Shibuya Station" creates a train station vibe with funky drumming, crazy sax and spacey synths, but it has a progression that builds into something like resolution. Rapid drumming evokes a downpour in "Rain in Ueno Park," while "Meiji Shrine" has a more stark, spiritual vibe and is the only song with overtly Asian overtures. "Crossing" is all pulsing rhythms, keys jutting in and out, sax dancing all around - the sound of traffic made into art, with cars going every which way and pedestrians venturing into the fray - and ends with some seriously cool synths matched up with horns. On the album's final song, "Departure," you can almost see the thoughts unfolding in Nicolay's head as a plane takes off in a burst of ether.

"It's a very abstract sort of concept," Nicolay said. "You can do something with basic emotions in music, that part is fairly easy. But to have an arc, that's where I take cues from my classical background."

When he's playing live with the Hot @ Nights, the group follows the pattern established on the EP, usually playing all eight songs in a row ("It's kind of a suite") and throwing in a medley of jazzier FE tracks.

"I'm playing keyboards on stage with three virtuosi, so I'm just trying to keep up," he said with a laugh.

The 13-show tour for "Shibuya Session" starts in Wilmington on Tuesday before heading to Raleigh, Charlotte and other Southern cities before winding up in the big markets of the Northeast - Philly, New York, Boston, D.C., Baltimore.

His time with The Hot @ Nights allows him to do something different than what he does with Foreign Exchange, much like Phonte did last year with a solo album, something Nicolay intentionally kept his musical distance from in order to give his partner, and himself, room to breathe.

"When we come back together at the end of all that, we bring new experiences and ideas to the table," Nicolay said.

After he gets back from tour next month, Nicolay plans to rest and "let the dust settle." Then it's off to work on the next musical chapter in his life - Foreign Exchange album No. 4.
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