Nicolay The Flying Dutchman @ Toronto
Sitting in the front row of a small jazz bar on Bathurst Street, called The Trane Studio, named after “the immortal John Michael Coltrane”, I all of a sudden realized that I like jazz music. Perhaps not Gato Barbieri and Jean-Luc Ponty, as my mother would recommend — she’s here in the room right now furious that I would disrespect her two boys — but cats like Nicolay of The Foreign Exchange and his fellow North Carolinian mates, The Hot at Nights. Looking back at my notes — still in withdrawal over my Apple headphones failing to bring out the colour in Nicolay’s music — I had the following to say about Nicolay’s performance, “No offense to Phonte Coleman in any way, because I own like 5 of his songs and in today’s age that’s a freakin lot, but Nicolay’s music is for the laziest of rappers. It speaks for itself.”
I came to that conclusion while listening to Nicolay play a couple jams off his collaborative project with The Hot at Nights, entitled Shibuya Session EP, which is basically a collection of re-interpolated tracks (by The Hot at Nights) of Nicolay’s 2009 album, City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya. Eternally aloof as any 23 year old, I made a point of asking Nicolay and The Foreign Exchange’s Director of Operations, Aimee Flint, to explain the album cover of City Lights Vol. 2, which pictures a fairly busy city street in what is definitely too cosmopolitan-looking to be America, let alone the South. Aimee and I were standing around the merch booth, and she was going off about how Shibuya is a city in Japan and how some German producer had invited Nicolay out there to work on a couple of songs, and they got to go out for ten days, and blah blah blah, all stuff that was supposed to make me ‘oooo’ and ‘awww’. “But that’s not what I meant,” I said. “I meant what were you doing right when that photo happened? Were you on your way to eat, or what?” Aimee couldn’t remember. “Well, what made that moment so special then?” Aimee considered the question, “Umm,” she said. “I wanted to go there forever because I studied Japanese in school,” and she started to smile. “Every moment while we were there was magical. Like we’d see a convenience store and we’d be like, ‘Oh my God, a convenience store!’” By that point Aimee had come unhinged. She was bobbing and ducking and smiling and propelling energy as if a Tornado had struck Toronto and made those wind wheels spin off their axis. It was great.
It didn’t take so many questions to get Nicolay to display his ‘inner fervor’. “I don’t mean to offend,” I said, as I sat across from the Dutch Master on a bar stool, ‘shooting the shit’ while simultaneously punching away at a credit card reader. “They don’t make these things any easier in Canada,” I mumbled, then, “How old are you now?” Nicolay said he was 37. “What were you like when you were 23?” Nicolay looked at me with drugged eyes, drugged in the sense that he had just come out the other side of a great battle. “I partied,” he said. “You know, I was young running around and making trouble,” or something of that nature. Looking now (physically of course) like a mix between Oscar from Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void and Gumby, Nicolay gives the impression that he’s a pretty hip adult, meaning he was also a hip twenty-something. He is tall, at least 6 foot 3, lanky, has long arms and fingers “a must for a piano player”, a long face, and expressive blue eyes. Clad in torn Tom shoes similar to a zebra pattern, Nicolay commanded his keyboard and synthesizer on the small step-up stage, across from The Hot Nights, and poured out glorious ascending melodies such as “Meiji Shrine” and “Crossing” from the Shibuya Session EP, a song or two off The Foreign Exchange’s Connected,“Sweeter Than You” from Leave It All Behind, and to close, a fucking sweet display of climatic ecstasy with a rendition of Sufjan Stevens’ “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”.
Besides the actual music, which rose and fell and twisted and veered, or as Big Sean would say, ‘swerved’, some of the finest moments of the performance were when Nicolay took to the microphone, and either belted out vocoder-assisted vocals, or addressed the crowd. “You’ve got questions, that was the answer,” said Nicolay at one point, concluding an awe-inspiring keyboard solo that had him rocking his head and looking out into the ether searching for something only the sweetest notes could bring… Another funny part was when a house fly approached the stage for a mid-show autograph and guitarist Chris Boerner clapped it in one sudden swipe. “That’s how sharp he is,” I cracked to the dude sitting next to me, who wore a flat hat and was rocking his feet and nodding his head in the candlelight. “Even the fly thinks we’re dope,” added Nicolay, with a chuckle, before bursting into his next number: a song broken down into its different parts to showcase the talents of each member of the band. Introducing the sax player, Matt Douglas, with beard and flannel shirt, Nicolay noted that “Matt plays the sax, flute, guitar, he sings, and is part of the band The Small Ponds.” Moving on, Nicolay introduced the drummer as ‘Nick 6 Arms Baglio’ and made a crack about his hair resembling a pyrotechnic’s work. Next Nicolay introduced bass guitarist and mixer/musician for Phonte Coleman, Chris Boerner, who I actually had the opportunity to speak to after the show; Chris attended Duke University and still lives out in Raleigh, North Carolina. And last but not least, Chris took the mic from Nicolay and mused, playfully, “What do we call him [Nicolay]? Hmm, well of course he’s the Dutch Master… We also call him… Dirk Nowitzki… No we don’t [laughs]. Ladies and gentlemen give it up for Nicolay the Flying Dutchman.” Fuck yeah.
And so, now that I’ve got all my notes down, I’ll go back to that moment — you know, ‘the moment’ — when I recognized that a) I like jazz, and b) that Nicolay’s music speaks for itself. I was sitting there at my front row table, nodding my head and smiling, always smiling, while Steffi, my friend and photographer/filmmaker, nestled into different spots around the stage taking photos… and I was sipping on a Mill Street beer, when words started coming out of my mouth. The funny part though was that the music was pure instrumentation. That’s what I meant when I joked that Phonte Coleman must be a lazy rapper. There’s a little truth to every joke. Meaning that the words, lyrics, rhymes, poetry, whatever, that arise from Nicolay’s music are pure unadulterated emotional spiritual soulful meanderings, and to channel them through language is the holiest of endeavors. Because hell, however much we want to fight it, and become ‘rational beings’, the art that makes the most sense is that which comes first. It is the primitive, or how Quentin Tarantino words it, “My pen is a fucking link to God”, or better yet, how Nicolay words it, “I follow my fingers.” Damn, I wish I had asked the Flying Dutchman what he thinks of Lars Von Trier.
Words by: Peter Marrack
Photos: Steffi Tupe.