Perth jazz guitarist, composer and arranger Joshua Nicholls is set to launch his debut album at Ellington Jazz Club on Thursday, June 23 (get more info and tickets here). Sharing in the celebrations on the night will be fellow Perth jazz musician, saxophonist and composer Maximillian Wickham, who is also launching his debut solo record. The night was made possible through Perth Jazz Society, with both artists awarded a special opportunity to professionally record and produce their original songs through Loop Recording Studio and engineer Kieran Kenderessy. BRAYDEN EDWARDS caught up with Joshua Nicholls to find out how after two COVID interrupted years, he couldn’t be happier to be sharing the moment with such a good friend and his “incredible” ensemble.

Congrats on releasing your album this month. How long has it been in the works for and how does it feel to finally share it with everyone?

Thank you so much! It’s hard to say when this album first started – you could say it’s been brewing ever since I began the Jazz course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in 2015. I first started writing Brewed Ginger and Across the Plains in 2017, and by 2019 all the compositions were fully formed, just in time for my Graduation Recital. I landed the amazing Perth Jazz Society Recording Opportunity in 2020, and due to all the delays of the last two years, it’s finally getting released now!

It’s a very surreal feeling. This is music that I’ve been playing for almost four years, and to finally hear it professionally recorded to the highest standard I could have possibly hoped for – it’s just the most wonderful experience ever! I’ve played the album in my car a few times and I’m thinking – who’s that on the radio? Oh right, it’s me!

For those that aren’t familiar with you, what kinds of artists shaped your sound? And the music on this record in particular?

I’ve always said my music is this strange mixture of the progressive rock and metal bands that I listened to as a teenager – Led Zeppelin, Dream Theater, System of a Down, Haken – and the multitude of jazz artists I was introduced to at WAAPA – Herbie Hancock, Marty Paich, Jaco Pastorius, Ari Hoenig, Tigran Hamasyan – and to a large extent the compositions of my amazing jazz lecturers, such as Tom O’Halloran, Jamie Oehlers and Mace Francis, my composition tutor.

This record is kind of like the greatest hits of my jazz writing of the last five years – Brewed Ginger is the funky, hip-hop banger with attitude, Back to Me is a like a power jazz/pop hit with sweet chords and hard-hitting rhythms. Door to Narnia is my love letter to prog rock groups like Dream Theater – odd time signatures, funky riffs and myriad styles, including a dash of manic free jazz. Across the Plains is something of an odd-one-out; it’s this slow, tender, emotional ballad with a gorgeous melody. The title track Astonishing Device is the big one: 13 and a half minutes long, split into six movements – think fat, brassy textures, crazy rhythms, and a heavy djent breakdown.

It may be your name on the album, but I bet you had a whole lot of talented people who also helped make it become a reality?

Absolutely – almost too many to name, but I’ll definitely give it a go! First of all my incredible band – Harry, Claire, Max, Will, Jemima, Kieran, Cameron and Matilda, they are all such powerhouse musicians, great improvisers, and just the best people to be around. My producer and mentor Mace Francis was always there to point me in the right direction and keep me sane, and the inimitable Kieran Kenderessy worked his ninja magic as recording and mixing engineer. Angelo Watts assembled the sleek album artwork, which was then printed and manufactured by the great people at Procopy. I’m grateful to Nicole M Photography and Silver Key Films for capturing precious moments in the recording studio with their masterful camera work.

The support of the Perth Jazz Society (PJS), and President Kate Pass in particular, cannot be overstated; I never would’ve had this opportunity without them. I also received a grant from the Government of Western Australia which was instrumental in ensuring the album release was as good as it possibly could be. My family – Mum, Dad and Rowan – all my friends, colleagues and supporters for always being there at my shows and making a whole lot of noise. A very special thanks goes out to my wife, Zoe, for being my rock in every situation, coming up with genius solutions to every problem and for being my inspiration for Back to Me.

How many musicians are performing with you for this show, and how will it be different from other live shows of yours?

The exact same band that recorded the album, which is very fortunate given how busy all my great musicians are. There’ll be myself on the guitar and arm-waving conducting, Harry Josland on trumpet, Claire Keet on alto sax, Maximillian Wickham on tenor sax, Will Pethick on trombone, Jemima Mills on baritone sax, Kieran Barnes on bass, Cameron Fermoyle on the drums, and Matilda Simcock singing on Back to Me. So all up, it’ll be nine musicians: Joshua Nicholls Plus Seven, plus one!

My band have played these tunes for years now, and in the lead up to the recording they’ve been fine-tuned, experimented with and perfected into a whole new form. I love performing this music live because we always get such a great positive reception from the crowd, and you usually get a new perspective on the music, finding out what people respond to most when you talk to them after the show. Having a professional recording of the album will remind the musicians how good the music can sound when we put in 100%.

And how did you go about capturing the sound on record? And were there any songs that turned out different than you originally expected?

The recording process was fascinating, rewarding and slightly maddening all at the same time. We only had two days, eight hours each, to record 45 minutes worth of music. We were arranged in a kind of circle, most instruments spread a few metres apart from each other, with the bass player walled off by a stack of sound baffles and everyone else facing the drums. I was the only one with a talk-back mic, so I had to relay all of the recording engineer’s notes to the band as I heard them, which was a very odd sensory experience. We played the tunes as hard as we could, and make a quick decision afterwards whether more takes were necessary. With the longer tunes, Door to Narnia and Astonishing Device, we recorded them in sections, as doing a 13 minute long perfect take probably would have killed us!

I can say for certain that I didn’t expect the music to come out sounding so professional and clean! There were definitely a few moments in the studio where I tried something I’d never done before – like in the trumpet solo in Astonishing Device, I normally play chords over it but on the record I’m just playing deep root notes with the bass. Sometimes as a musician you have to go with what you feel – and I’m really glad I did because I love the way that part of the song turned out.

You’re releasing the record in a joint launch show with Maximillian Wickham! What do you feel makes the two you a fitting double bill?

I really couldn’t have picked a better composer to launch the album with. Not only is he a fantastic musician and composer but he’s also a great mate. We studied at WAAPA together and he’s played in my band since the very beginning. Max is actually the one that made me aware of the PJS Recording Opportunity in the first place. If only one of us had got it, I’m sure we would have both been very professional about it, but to both get it was out of this world. Having never recorded an album before it’s been a real learning curve and to be able to navigate the different challenges with a friend has made the process even more enjoyable. I feel like it’s also brought us closer together as friends.

What’s on for the rest of the year? Any more live performances we can look forward to?

There’s plenty of opportunities coming up this year, there’s the King Street Corner Pocket Jazz Festival in July, the Perth International Jazz Festival in November, and the Ellington is always providing wonderful opportunities for local jazz bands. I will be taking advantage of as many of these opportunities as possible, and I’m working on some fresh compositions in the meantime. Perhaps I’ll even listen to my wife and write her another song (laughs)!

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