Saxophonist Grady Nichols is going places and exploring a variety of sounds on his new album, appropriately titled “Destinations.”
“I believe the saxophone is the most relevant instrument we have. You can put it in every genre of music, and it works. And not every instrument can do that,” Nichols said in a phone interview last week from Tulsa, where he has lived since 1994.
“The thing is I just love music. I love all kinds of music, and I have big ears. I love to listen to all of it and as a result, I like putting the sax in all of it.”
Nichols, 39, will be among the performers this week at the 27th Annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival in Oklahoma City. Along with jazz, blues, soul and hip-hop artists playing outdoor concerts Friday and Saturday, the festival features two historical exhibits, two jam sessions and a gospel show Sunday to close the event.
“It's a great festival because Charlie Christian is a huge figure in traditional jazz music. He's a legend,” Nichols said of the late, great guitarist, who grew up in Oklahoma City and helped establish the guitar as a lead instrument. “He's one of those guys that when you look at the state of Oklahoma ... he's one of ours.”
Since this year's lineup features several newcomers and emphasizes emerging local talent, Nichols is one of the few returning favorites on the bill, along with the Jeremy Thomas Quartet and the reunited After Five Jazz Band.
“He is just always such a hot item in the festival. We just can't go wrong with him,” said Anita G. Arnold, executive director of festival organizers Black Liberated Arts Center (BLAC) Inc.
The Arkansas native has played the festival every year since at least 2004.
“I've got great memories of playing at Charlie Christian. I remember playing with Tom Braxton and then Wayman Tisdale came and sat in. That was a really cool moment. We've opened for George Benson, played with Kirk Whalum,” Nichols said.
“We always come to the festival with something new ... so this'll be a completely new and different performance than what we did last year.”
Released April 30, his sixth album “Destinations” offers plenty of variety, bringing a jazzy, cosmopolitan energy with first single “London Baby!,” going country with “Tulsa” and channeling a reggae vibe with “Beachside.” The album also includes instrumental covers of Journey's classic rock ballad “Faithfully” and Keith Urban's country chart-topper “Only You Can Love Me This Way.”
“My whole approach to playing sax has been to play it in such a way that it sounds like somebody is singing to you, that it sounds like a vocalist. To take a song, write it in the standard kind of pop format — where you write a song that basically it's sing
“As a result, I've worked with a lot of pop music songwriters, which has been really cool because it's been different for them to create songs ... in such a way that every note has to count, every note has to mean something when you play it.”
For the album, he reunited with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/musician Bill Champlin, and the former member of Chicago lent his voice and Hammond B-3 organ skills to “You Know Me.” Nichols also reteamed with Grammy-nominated jazz fusionist Jeff Lorber for “You with Me.”
Nichols recorded “Destinations” at Ben Folds' studio in Nashville, Tenn., with producer Chris Rod
“I just put myself in situations where I'm writing with a lot of different songwriters,” Nichols said. “It's cool to kind of get out of a comfort zone and just write and learn and learn and write and see what you can come up with that's something distinctive musically to contribute.”
27th Annual Charlie Christian International Music Festival
• Wednesday: Opening of a new exhibit on Fred
• Thursday: Jamming Across the City, 7 p.m., Urban Roots, 322 NE 2, and Woody's Sports Bar & Grill, 2501 NE 23. Admission is $5.
• Friday: Live music, 6 to 11:15 p.m., Metro Tech Amphitheater, 1900 Springlake Drive. Reality & The New Era, Equilibrium, Billie Jeane, Robert Banks Band and the reunited After Five Jazz Band. Admission is $10.
• Saturday: Live music, 6 to 11:15 p.m., Metro Tech Amphitheater. Miss Cooki, Spencer Brown & The Dudes, Jeremy Jackson & Sultry Soul, Grady
• Sunday: James Cleveland Gospel Show conducted by the Rev. Dr. A. Cortes Rex, 5 p.m., Douglass High School.
• For more information: 524-3800 or www.char