If there’s one word to define free jazz, it’s emotional, according to Seth Nanaa, drummer with experimental duo Ghost Trees.
“It has one purpose, and that’s to grab you and keep you in the moment,” he says.
Nanaa is animated as he discusses the music that first stirred his soul 20 years ago. Free jazz is an attitude as much a genre, a celebration of exploration and spontaneity.
It’s the Voyager Probe of instrumental music, tracking an orbit of regular tempos, tones and chord changes before slingshotting out beyond the Kuiper Belt and back. It’s the antithesis of the neutered rhythm and blues which often passes for jazz in the Queen City.
“You can’t put [free jazz] on in the background and play checkers or have a conversation,” Nanaa explains. “It demands your attention.”
Nanaa and saxophonist Brent Bagwell, the other half of Ghost Trees, will bring “in-the-moment” free jazz to join up with performers of varying genres at Petra’s for a three-night spring residency that kicks off March 11. Each show will feature a musical duo as a headliner, Nanaa says, augmented with at least one local rock band and plenty of surprises.
If there’s any criterion for booking the trio of shows, it’s that Ghost Trees wants to host good music.
“I think everybody understands that there’s not a lot of money to be made here,” Nanaa says. “We’re just doing it for love.”
Love means playing eclectic bills, he continues, being willing to mix genres and giving the audience something they’ve seen before.
As an example, Nanaa points to a show Bagwell once played with local exotica act Don Telling’s Island Mysteries. “They had a magician [onstage] one night. That sounds crazy but it really isn’t.”
Nanaa, who just turned 47, believes he was born a musician. He’s been into music for as long as he can remember, honing his percussion chops by playing air drums to 1980s hits in the back seat of the family car. When Nanaa turned 12, he and his twin brother Adam got into punk rock.
By the time they were 18, the brothers had moved to California from their childhood home in Miami, and were looking for something that went beyond the Dead Kennedys. Nanaa found what he was looking for in emo, though it wasn’t called that then.
“It wasn’t three-chord punk rock. It was three-chord octaves instead. So there was a difference,” Nanaa says laughing.
He played with Indian Summer. The band was obscure at the time, but it has recently garnered attention. Nanaa remembers it as an intense time, an era when people lived out loud.
“It was a big community of friends, basement shows for no money, and nobody knew what they were doing,” he says. “Twenty years later people are saying these five bands are great, and Indian Summer just happens to be one of those bands.”
Nanaa was 27 and living in Austin, Texas, when Adam brought him Meditations, John Coltrane’s brilliant 1965 album in which the saxophonist embraced free jazz. “I thought it was awesome but super far-out. It was crazy with two drummers [Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali], and [saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders blaring away.”
Nanaa decided that free jazz was the only kind of music he ever wanted to play. Drumming in jazz trios, he bounced around from Portland to Oakland before landing in Brooklyn where he met Bagwell.
A veteran of Charlotte’s music scene, Bagwell had studied with legendary saxophonist Bob Feldman before becoming a fixture in New York’s art, noise and improvisational music landscape. It was a case of kindred souls coming together.
“We talked for 10 minutes and I thought, ‘Yeah, this guy’s the man.’” Nanaa recalls about the first time the duo riffed together. Bagwell went out on a musical limb and Nanaa stopped him.
“I said, ‘You see where you’re at right now? That’s where I want you start.’ I had to goad him a little into playing scorched-earth free jazz.”
Nanaa and Bagwell hooked up with artist and bassist Jordan Schranz and started playing as the Eastern Seaboard, a combo that claimed to pledge allegiance to free and improvisational music on their Bandcamp page.
The trio cut a pair of albums — Nonfiction in 2004 and The Sound Power in 2010 — for the Italian independent label Black Saint Records.
“We toured extensively,” Nanaa remembers. “We’d go out and do 30 shows in 30 days. We went everywhere and back again five or six different times.”
Over time the trio scattered across the country. South Carolina-native Bagwell moved to the Charlotte area, Nanaa attended nursing school in California and Schranz left to pursue his painting career. In 2011, Nanaa realized everyone he cared about was in North Carolina, including his girlfriend (soon to be wife) and his best friend. So he moved to Charlotte.
With barely a hitch, Nanaa and Bagwell went from being the remnants of Eastern Seaboard to the newly born Ghost Trees.
The band’s upcoming residency is not the first they’ve hosted at Petra’s. In September 2017, the duo anchored Antidote, a series celebrating the fusion of jazz and poetry. June 2018 saw Ghost Trees hosting a series of all-instrumental music concerts.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the new residency is that Ghost Trees, the host of the series, will not be playing the first night. Like the magician he once booked for an exotica show, Brent Bagwell will have disappeared.
Well, not really. He’ll just be out of the country on March 11. He’ll be in the Netherlands presenting a dance piece with Queens University Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion Eric Mullis at the Performance Philosophy Conference in Amsterdam, he says.
The piece, Sherman’s Neckties, explores a little known aspect of Civil War history, Bagwell explains. The titular neckties refer to a Union Army tactic of twisting railroad ties and making the tracks impassable.
A Chicago Tribune review referring to a previous performance notes that Bagwell “pans the back of the house, playing as though his instrument is equally bent and blocked.”
Though Ghost Trees is — well, ghosting — for the first night of their residency, their influence will be felt in the eclectic bill they’ve booked. The lineup includes Charlotte bands TKO Faith Healer and MOA (formerly Sam the Lion). Headlining the show is Asheville duo Okapi, comprised of cellist Lindsey Paige Miller and stand-up bass player and vocalist Scott Mitchell Gorski.
Okapi is definitely not free jazz, Nanaa says, but still pretty far out there.
“I’d call [their music] an Appalachian Tom Waits thing,” Nanaa explains. “There are free jazz cello breakdowns every once in a while, but most of their songs are structured and written.”
The “weird duo” theme carries over to the second night of the residency. Ghost Trees will headline April 8, sharing the bill with Greensboro duo Canonises, comprised of alto saxophone player Justin Holt and drummer Nic Stott. For the third night, May 13, Bagwell and Nanaa will host Space Saver from Charlottesville, Virginia.
“They are a drum and tenor sax duo much like us,” Nanaa says. “They play sort of like Ghost Trees except I think they use pedals.”
In a nutshell, that’s the outline of the residency template, he continues. “It will definitely be us, a duo and then another band.”
Beyond the players, another important component of each evening is the venue, Nanaa adds.
“Petra’s is such a great space, easily one of the best places to play in all of Charlotte,” he says.
Drums sound incredible in the space, and the room seems designed for listening to music, he continues, pointing to where the stage is situated directly across a narrow floor space from the bar. “You go there and the show is what’s happening. It’s not like you can mill about and talk.”
It’s the perfect setup for three evenings of “out there” music and a player like Nanaa who craves the “in-the-moment” connection with his audience.
The first night of Spring Residency presented by Ghost Trees at Petra’s features TKO Faith Healer, Okapi and MOA (formerly Sam the Lion) on March 11, 7-11 p.m.; $5; 1919 Commonwealth Ave. The residency continues on April 8 and May 13.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Don Telling’s Island Mysteries was disbanded. They are very much alive and playing at Tip Top Daily Market on April 10 and The Milestone on May 19.]