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Alex Norris — “Fleet From the Heat” (SteepleChase, 2021)


2022 marks Alex Norris’ 30th year on the scene in NYC. In this interview, he talks to Arthur Zanin about what motivated him to develop his latest album, “Fleet From the Heat” (SteepleChase, 2021), and what’s hidden in each piece on it.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

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You have just released your third album as a leader, Fleet From the Heat (SteepleChase, 2021), in which you celebrate ten years with your quintet. Can you tell us a little about this album, and is it perhaps a love letter to NYC?

Me and my publicist had a discussion about that. Actually, it wasn’t just him; it was also the guy who was writing the liner notes, Neal Tesser. I didn’t come up with that term myself, but when other people started saying it, I thought, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” It’s a non-sentimental love letter to New York. What happened with me is that I came to New York in 1992, and honestly, I left twice. One time I left for London in 1996 for six months to work with Incognito, the awesome British jazz-funk group, which, by the way, brought me to Brazil for the first time.

After that, I came back to New York, and then, when I left in 2004, I was of the mindset that I would get my DMA, find a college teaching job and really domesticate myself. But what happened after my time in Miami at Frost ended (on a one-year contract) was that the whole time I was on this list for a great artist housing programme called Manhattan Plaza, and I finally got in. Then I decided, “You know what? I think this is what I want to do. I think I want to go back to New York and reintroduce myself as an active member of the music community there.” I’ve had my ups and downs since then. I had another academic career at the Peabody Institute that ended recently, but I’ve decided that performing is what I love. I love being a New York musician; I love what New York has to offer. I sometimes see people posting negative things on social media about New York, but I have to make my own decisions, and I’ve decided I love it here. I love the enormous musical community and, not to talk badly about academia, but it hasn’t been that kind to me, if I may be frank. But it was the musical community of New York City that has always been kind to me. They’ve kept me active; they’ve let me reintroduce myself twice and got me busy with different projects. They’ve been loyal to me, they’ve kept me working, they’ve invited me into their communities, and that’s why I love New York.

Are all the songs in the album written by you? Can you give a little overview of them and your inspirations to write them?

They’re all originals by me. I wrote Fleet From the Heat in 2009 when I came back to New York. It was sort of my declaration that I had left Miami and was back in New York. I wanted to make myself a New Yorker again. I feel that Fleet From the Heat has that fiery New York vibe — at least, that’s what I think! The music scene has changed a lot in New York, even in the four years that I left. For one, there are several younger generations that are making their mark, and all of them have different sounds, which is cool. And I’ve got to say, they’re very nice for hiring me and letting me into their world. It echoes back to what we were talking about earlier; be versatile and be open to new things. And I had to be open to the new sounds they were putting down to be an active member of their world.

No Fair, It’s Mine: I wrote that in 2011, 2012. I was visiting my father in Reston, Virginia, sort of noodling on the piano, and I kind of came up with this song. I heard these kids playing ball outside his window, and the ball was going back and forth. One of the kids said, “No fair, it’s mine!” and I thought, “That’s a nice title.”

So you’re probably wondering what the suite is all about — the famous Original Pandemic Suite. There were loads of Famous Original Ray’s Pizza places in Manhattan; there were probably twenty or thirty locations, all saying they were the original ones. Well, when the lockdown started and the Pandemic evolved, I noticed so many people who were writing songs, novels, operas, painting pictures, and making little blues vignettes, all in dedication to the Pandemic… The Pandemic this, the Pandemic that; everyone had their pandemic artistic marker. Knowing that by no means was I the first person to do something dedicated to the Pandemic, I decided to use the humour behind, “I’m the famous original!”, knowing that I’m not!

I’ll give you a rundown of those tunes. The first is called What Normal? It basically refers to when you hear on the news that you have to adjust to the “new normal.” I’m thinking to myself, “We’re jazz musicians! What normal? There’s no normal.” Quarandemic is a conjunction of two words; quarantine and Pandemic. I had two ideas going on; one is the monotony of the same thing going on every day, and the other line going on is you hoping that something will change as the days go on. Ballad for 2020: 2020 was a devastating year. We all experienced a significant loss of other humans, loss of our ways of life, of income. So I thought that a year like that deserved a ballad. And this was a challenge for me because I’d never written a ballad. I feel like it’s so naked, and when you write a ballad, you’re constantly re-judging yourself in what you’re writing. This was also a kind of compositional exercise. How can I write a ballad and be honest? I mean, yeah, there are many moments where it sounds like Infant Eyes, I realise that! But do I need to get obsessed about that?

I’m sure you can tell I’m not that concerned with being completely original from my sense of humour! So anyway, from an emotional standpoint, 2020 deserved a ballad, and I decided to write it. The last movement, called Dude, Where’s My Deli? was named after the deli on my corner. During the Pandemic, it closed. There was a certain point during the lockdown and during the whole quarantine where all of the restaurants, stores, delis, and of course, live music venues were just shut down. And the neighbourhood got pretty scary, to tell you the truth. I’m happy to say now that things are returning back to normal — many of the bars, restaurants and other venues that have come back or have been replaced by others are open. That deli on the corner was unhygienic and grossly overpriced, but it was open twenty-four hours. When you came home late at night and wanted a little something, it was always there. So during the Pandemic, I was like, “Dude, where’s my deli?!” So that’s a rundown of the suite.

I wrote Holiday Blues in 2008 during my first winter back after Miami. I remember feeling how good it was to be back; how nice it was to feel the cold weather. But there’s also something kind of sad about seasonal affective disorder. So in some ways, it’s an ode to seasonal affective disorder.

I wrote The Untamed Land many years ago in the 90s when I was on tour with a band and travelled through the Midwest. It seemed that where one piece of land would end, another would overlap. The melody kind of has that overlapping thing. I’d also say that the way the solo form is constructed — with the interlude in the middle and a fermata — was kind of inspired by some of Jackie McLean’s writing.

The composition Night Bus goes back to the early 90s. It’s a very old one for me, but a lot of my friends like it. I used to say I wrote it one night on a bus, but that isn’t exactly how it happened. I wrote the opening motif on a bus, but then I developed it when I later sat down at the piano.

You’ll probably recognise Grapple With a Snapple. The title sounds like Scrapple From the Apple. I can explain that! I always wanted to write a line over the top of the chord changes of Scrapple From the Apple, so the idea was there before I actually wrote the song. And, of course, with Scrapple From the Apple, the bridge is improvised, but in this one, I wrote a definite bridge. So that’s basically it!

Full Interview: “Be Good, Be Professional, Be Nice”

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