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By Lauren Wise
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By Amanda Savage
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Now, imagine having played on more than 100 albums, not one of which your old Phoenix cronies has ever heard of.
"People come up to me when I visit Phoenix," says jazz drummer Lewis Nash by telephone from his New York home, "and say, 'Oh, you left town, whatcha doing?' What do you mean, what am I doing?"
Nash has spent 12 years laying out rhythms for nearly every big name in jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz to Sonny Rollins. For nonjazzers: Gillespie helped give birth to bebop in the Forties, Getz played a major role in inventing cool jazz a decade later, and Sonny Rollins is considered by many to be one of the three most important jazz saxmen of the last half-century. Over the course of his career, Nash has also played with Art Pepper, Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt, Lee Konitz, Benny Carter, Slide Hampton, Branford Marsalis, Art Farmer, Clark Terry and Betty Carter--every one a bona fide jazz legend.
During the few days each year that Nash returns to the Valley to visit his parents and siblings, he checks to see if anyone is aware of his successes.
"Whenever I'm here to see my family, I turn on the radio. And after all the records I've made since I left Phoenix, none of them get played here," Nash says. "I've been busting my ass for all these years in New York, and there's nothing to show for it if Phoenix radio has anything to say about it."
Nash was not an unknown when he left the Valley in 1981. The Arizonan's talents had already been acknowledged by many in the ever-vital East Coast jazz scene.
"Things happened really quickly," he says of his post-Arizona life. "I left Phoenix for New York because I had a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study drums with Max Roach. It just so happened that jazz singer Betty Carter needed a drummer right around the same time. I had to fit in time with Max whenever I wasn't on the road with Betty."
Nash had been referred to Carter by a local teacher, Fred Waits, who, like a lot of Phoenicians in the late Seventies, had plenty of chances to see the drummer show off his stuff around town.
"I first played regularly with Charles Lewis . . . in 1977 or 1978," says Nash. "Then I worked with Keith Greko at Raffle's in Scottsdale. That was five or six nights a week, for a long time. Then I had my own group, Pendulum, at the Boojum Tree right before I left."
Nash says his dream was to play with the people whose records he had been listening to.
"One way or the other, I knew I had to get out of Phoenix. I had to come to New York if I really wanted to get the truth about jazz," he says flatly. "The only way a young musician, like I was, is going to get better is by playing with jazzmen who have been doing it longer. And you can only do that to a certain degree in a place like Phoenix or any other city of that size. Then you have to go to where the cream of the crop is--New York."
Trading the wide-open spaces for an apartment in New York City was an intimidating venture for the 21-year-old drummer. At first, so was being under the tutelage of the greatest living drummer in jazz.
"Max Roach and I spent a lot more time talking than at the drums," he says. "His recommendations to me were that I get a piano, vibes or some kind of mallet instrument and start studying composition on a percussion instrument other than drums. Learning to write would keep me from spending my whole career just being a drummer behind everyone else. It was probably the best thing he ever said to me."
It's no coincidence, then, that Nash's first album as a bandleader, Rhythm Is My Business, forgoes the obligatory horns for the percussive sounds of piano and vibes. The disc, originally released in Japan in 1990, recently made its stateside debut on the Evidence label.
Throughout the album, Nash flashes the agility that convinced Downbeat magazine to present him with the 1993 "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" award.
On Rhythm, Nash infuses the jazz standard "Monk's Dream" with the perfect, oddball feel the Thelonious Monk composition requires. Nash ricochets off the full scope of his drum kit to re-create the twisted vision of the eccentric composer.
"My Shining Hour" is a speed test in which Nash proves capable of seamlessly stringing together fistfuls of off-kilter rhythms and drum colors under the pressure of a 90-mph tempo. Another song, "Pranayama," is similar, with the drummer presenting more ideas than the human ear can comprehend.
While his hometown may not acknowledge Nash, he remembered the Valley in the recording studio.
"Sabaku' was written with Phoenix in mind," says Nash of the disc's most appealing composition. "I wanted something to relate to the Valley on my first record. I have a soft spot for the Valley. I really wish I could live there some part of the year. I just wish it was easier for Phoenix to turn on to the kind of music I play.