Biophilia Records
N o r t o n k
The legacy of iconic, free-minded jazz bands without a harmony-establishing chordal instrument, such as a piano or a guitar, is long and compelling: from the classics of the Ornette Coleman Quartet and Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker Quartet to venturesome contemporary groups like the Mark Turner Quartet and Chris Speed’s Endangered Blood. The young players of the New York quartet Nortonk take inspiration from that great lineage and stake their own claim with Nortonk, the group’s absorbing debut album, to be released by the Harlem-based Biophilia Records on March 19, 2021. Nortonk – Thomas Killackey (trumpet), Gideon Forbes (alto saxophone), Stephen Pale (double-bass) and Steven Crammer (drums) – showcases original music by each of its members on the quartet’s first album. That music is a mix of serpentine melody and interactive rhythms, from the hushed to the raucous – with the album’s highlights including the exciting “Duuzh” and the pensive, richly melodious “Herzog.”

Pianist Fabian Almazan, founder-director of Biophilia, recalls the time he first heard Nortonk perform, when the members were still studying together at New Jersey’s William Paterson University. Almazan was playing a concert there as part of Mark Guiliana’s band, with Nortonk opening the event. “I was backstage when I heard the opener begin to play in the distance,” Almazan says. “The closer I got to the sound, the clearer it became that something special was going on. I remember the exact date because it was my birthday, April 16th – and I got a pretty good birthday present that day because I was able discover Nortonk. The band’s music is full of that elusive rawness that you can’t exactly define, but you can completely feel in your bones. It feels like honest music, coming from a love for the art form. So I’m very happy to help Nortonk share its music with the world through Biophilia Records.”

About those qualities that Almazan heard in Nortonk, Crammer says: “I think there’s some bite to the sound of our band, and we write our music to be able to take chances. The extra sonic space available to us, because the group doesn’t include a chordal instrument, allows us to interact more freely, more directly. "We play a lot of rhythmically oriented music and the sound and format of the ensemble help the visceral, human quality come through.” Forbes seconds that: “When we’re improvising, I agree that it sounds raw – in a good way. We aim not to make our choices out of habit, but from listening and reacting to each other in the moment.”

Nortonk’s name is an homage to one of its biggest mentors in college, the drummer-composer and teacher Kevin Norton (the band having drolly referred to him among themselves as “Nortonk” from how his name would appear in his e-mail address). “We liked the sound of the word, plus it had the bonus of subtly recognizing Kevin’s importance to us,” Crammer explains. Nortonk recorded the album just before the pandemic started. The group and its engineers endeavored to capture in the studio the intimate, visceral feel of the band’s live music-making, as the quartet recorded together on the studio floor without the typical separation. Reflecting on that process, Forbes says he and his bandmates now long to present the music of Nortonk for an audience, in the flesh: “Having a physical connection to music again after all this time – the sound of our instruments in the air, the vibe of a crowd around us – is what we’re all really looking forward to.”

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