“The Ballads Album Miles Davis Never Recorded." East Bay Express
“A fabulous CD, the kind that find their way onto the ‘Best of Year’ lists." All About Jazz
Ballads reign on Moment To Moment, the extraordinarily self-possessed new album by pianist Cava Menzies and trumpeter Nick Phillips. But this recording is much more than just a “ballads album.”
Many artists have produced albums filled with love songs and torch tunes at slow tempos; they’re designed to pull at the heartstrings, or turn up the nostalgia, or to highlight the introspective phrasemaking that ballads allow. But very few succeed at also doing what this album accomplishes. It creates a cocoon of space around the listener. It lowers the blood pressure; it slows the heartbeat; it seems to slow time itself. (If it weren’t so supremely musical, you might consider marketing it as a medical device.) On Moment To Moment, Menzies and Phillips locate their music very much in the present – in that space, Menzies explains, “where you have a moment to breathe.” And they transport their listeners to a place where each of those moments really counts.
“We’ve done all sorts of material in our gigs together,” Menzies points out, “but the ballads really brought out something special in our playing – a gentleness. At a house concert we did about a year before the recording, we played a duo version of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is,’ and at the end we were both weeping. It was so powerful emotionally; we feed off each other’s energy when we play, and we wanted to just go deeper and deeper.”
In repertoire drawn primarily from the jazz catalog as well as the Great American Songbook, Menzies and Phillips – joined by the tastefully simpatico rhythm team of bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Jaz Sawyer – go far beneath the surface of the melody lines and chord changes. Their improvisations have a quiet wakefulness, a deceptive simplicity that reveals a carefully constructed, unassuming majesty. Together, they follow the advice of Miles Davis in not only knowing what to play but also, more important, what to leave out. And their instrumental lines dovetail with an ease that would normally bespeak years of collaboration.
Which makes it all the more surprising that Menzies and Phillips first met in July, 2012; their partnership is still in its infancy, and this album represents their recording debut as a collaborative duo.
“I had this regular restaurant gig,” Menzies recalls, “and our vocalist couldn’t make it one night. The bassist recommended Nick, and we just had this magical musical chemistry. The more gigs we did together, the more we realized that we had so much in common.” Adds Phillips: “In that first meeting, it was surprising to me how instantly compatible Cava and I were musically. The subtle nuances, the phrasing, the way we both leave space in our playing to let the music breathe – it was all there.”
Equally shocking, to Menzies, was the revelation that Phillips had essentially stopped playing the trumpet in the years leading up to their introduction. “I’ve been a performing musician on the side throughout much of my career, but I really had to put that on the back burner for a while, given the demands of my day job,” Phillips explains. Menzies remembers thinking that Phillips must be a busy working musician, given what she was hearing on stage. “So I was shocked when we chatted after the gig and he told me that he had put the trumpet aside. I started urging him to play more – to use this incredible gift he has, this incredible sound. It’s been beautiful to watch it develop.”
Neither Menzies nor Phillips makes a living through performance, but they each make a living in music. As a longtime staff producer and Vice President at Concord Music Group, Phillips has worked on hundreds of albums – by noted artists ranging from Karrin Allyson to Poncho Sanchez to Gary Burton – and overseen the label’s acclaimed jazz reissue program, where his personal involvement has elevated collections of work by such giants as Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk.
Menzies teaches music to kids in grades 6 through 12 at the Oakland (CA) School for the Arts, where she chairs the vocal and instrumental music departments and conducts the school choirs; what's more, she can lean on a rich family history. Her grandmother danced at the legendary Cotton Club in New York (the home of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway); her mother is a classically trained flutist; and Menzies’ father, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, was a founding member of the legendary Herbie Hancock Sextet in the late 1960s, and has recorded nearly two dozen albums under his own name.
For both artists, their “day jobs” strongly inform their music. "I think this project benefited from my experience as a record producer. That requires not only making the right choices to ensure the highest sound quality, but also knowing how to create a relaxed, comfortable recording environment for musicians, to allow the music to flow effortlessly," Phillips says. "I had the rare experience of working with some of the greatest living jazz artists on their recording projects, and also spending countless hours listening and digging deeply into recordings by some of the most important artists in the history of the music. It’s all made for a lifetime's worth of profound musical lessons that are deep in my DNA." His work at Concord left little time to pursue performance engagements. “But when I played that first gig with Cava, I knew right there and then that I had to make my trumpet playing a bigger priority.”
For Cava, teaching singers has had a significant impact on her own instrumental work. “I sang a lot when I was younger,” she explains, before choosing to focus on the piano in her mid-20s. “And I think that what I coach in vocalists informs my playing, in terms of letting the emotions out. It’s the lyrical element. The program [at OSA] is famous for producing great musicians, but our signature is the stage presence and emotional quality of these performers. So while I really care about my touch at the piano, I’m also concerned with the energy behind the phrases. It’s about sincerity and authenticity in your delivery: how honest and vulnerable can you get up there?”
Quite a lot, if Moment To Moment is any indication.
“It’s a very, very moody album,” Menzies remarks. “Not in a negative way, but ‘moody’ in that it’s the type of album where you sit and reflect on life. There are moments in which it plays with both dark and light. It’s moody in that way, and it really tries to capture the range of human emotion – the emotion that you feel just moving through life.”
Cava Menzies | Nick Phillips Moment to Moment
Nick Phillips - trumpet / Cava Menzies - piano / Jeff Chambers - bass / Jaz Sawyer - drums
Produced and Arranged by Nick Phillips and Cava Menzies Recorded and Mixed by Adam Muñoz at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA; July 8-13, 2013 Mastered by Joe Tarantino at Joe Tarantino Mastering, Berkeley, CA
Recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely in native 24-bit/192kHz high-resolution digital
1. The Peacocks (6:46) (Jimmy Rowles) Kudu Music Company-ASCAP
2. Mal's Moon (7:01) (Cava Lee Menzies) Cava Menzies Publishing-ASCAP
3. For All We Know (7:59) (Fred Coots-Samuel Lewis) Sis 'N Bro Music Company/Toy Town Tunes Inc.-ASCAP
4. You (5:52) (Nick Phillips-Clifford Goldmacher) Trumpetnick Music/Famous In France Music-BMI
5. You Don't Know What Love Is (8:01) (Don Raye-Gene DePaul) Universal Music Corporation-ASCAP
6. Almost Blue (6:48) (Elvis Costello) Universal Music Publishing MGB Limited-ASCAP
Top 15 Jazz Album in the U.S. (SoundScan Traditional Jazz chart)
"...This gem feels timeless. It's a stunner...This quartet (with Menzies and Phillips handling the arrangements and production) has crafted a sonic atmosphere that seduces the listener into a state of transfixed bliss. It’s one thing to create a mood; it’s quite another to sustain that mood for an entire album." DownBeat Magazine (Editors’ Pick)
“The Ballads Album Miles Davis Never Recorded…Lush, emotional performances. Phillips' trumpet radiates warmth and sweetness as it floats over Menzies' delicate piano chords. East Bay Express
“A fabulous CD, the kind that find their way onto the ‘Best of Year’ lists…a gorgeously retro-classic sound…It has what the best albums have—a sustained mood, beautiful sound quality, well-chosen material, and great musicians who have clicked as a group and slipped into a cohesive ensemble groove.” All About Jazz
“This is a duo that takes its sweet time, and the vibe as Phillips floats mournfully over Menzies’ generally livelier licks is that of two lovers sharing a dance at closing time…Straight down to the bass and drums, the interaction of instruments is easy yet dramatic, and the romantic nuance promises to reveal itself over time. The stories, after all, are in the empty spaces.” M Music & Musicians
“Spare, lyrical, beautiful and elegant…Menzies and Phillips know how to capture a mood…Throughout this CD, they let the music breathe...The Menzies-Phillips simpatico is so fine that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear any of these eight tracks – perhaps all of them – resurface on various movie soundtracks. Moment To Moment is that good.” Ken Franckling’s Jazz Notes
"…entrancing…The music is quiet but never light; it’s filled with emotion and with harmonic interest, but its overall impact is soothing and comforting at a deeply visceral level. It’s hard to explain how exceptionally beautiful this album is. Strongly recommended to all jazz collections." CD HotList
“The songs are familiar but the fresh arrangements, relaxed pace and soft touch imparted by the leaders makes this a standout recording.” O's Place Magazine
“…a beautiful album…covers a broad range of emotions and colors across the breadth of the repertoire, owing much to Chet Baker and, not surprisingly, the cooler side of Miles Davis.” About.com
“This is a late night jazz club, a hush over the crowd, one ballad after the other, and each song breaking somebody’s heart…just the kind of music for kicking back and drifting off…” Emusic
“Every year about this time, people begin to ask me for musical suggestions for Valentine’s Day. What’s the best music for a romantic dinner? What’s the best CD to surprise someone with as a gift?...Well, this year the answer is simple – pick up Cava Menzies and Nick Phillips‘ new CD Moment to Moment.” Straight No Chaser
"Moment to Moment comes close to the supernatural nature of music...Heavy with the bronzed glow of [Nick Phillips'] horn and the dense beauty of [Cava] Menzies’ sinewy harmonics informed by a palette of spectacular colours, the music gathers like a great bank of gorgeously fluffy and rippling cumulonimbus clouds sheltering in an endless sky." Jazz da Gama
“The musical creativity that resonates the collaborative union between these two artists can be heard with the ears, and also felt deeply within the soul.” iRock Jazz
" …Phillips and Menzies let the music breathe, contrasting every sound they make with silence, showing that they are both masters of restraint...[they] play so well during their quartet set with bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Jaz Sawyer that it is surprising to realize that neither one is a fulltime musician " Jazz Inside Magazine
"…floating, gorgeous album of ballads." Louisville Music News
More about Cava Menzies
"[Cava Menzies'] lines undulate gracefully and sometimes curl into sensuous arcs that complete themselves as they wrap into parabolas. Narrative lines proceed lyrically in a linear manner; but ever so suddenly they might turn and be party to dramatic inversions. Her soli are breathtaking; she shows great strength; great fortitude as she ascends almost vertical faces in the melodic leaps that she makes." Jazz da Gama
“The pianist?...It's an original approach—concise, not a lot of notes, but every one seems to mean something profound.” All About Jazz
More about Nick Phillips
"Burning with slow passion, Mr. Phillips seems to come from the line of pathos and irony created by Miles Davis…His handling of the mute is exquisite; he is in a minority of one when it comes to eliciting the primal cry of the horn, then making it sound almost human as notes bend and twist at his command." Jazz da Gama
“On a blindfold test, a good guess might be: ‘Chet Baker’…soft, rich, open horn tone.” All About Jazz