The concept of freedom in music relates to many things. Bassist/composer Clovis Nicolas didn’t eschew formal jazz harmony and rhythm in his search for freedom but found a measure of added purpose and space for his bass playing in a chord-less band format, without piano or guitar. Freedom Suite Ensuite is a recording of Nicolas’s efforts in this formation and a tribute to the musician who exemplifies playing free within a form, saxophone great Sonny Rollins.


Nicolas has been an important voice in the New York music scene since his arrival from Paris in the early 2000s. Having already established himself as a first-call bassist in Europe,  he studied at the Juilliard School in New York and quickly garnered an international reputation by playing with many of the music’s most noted musicians, including Peter Bernstein, Jane Monheit, Frank Wess, Joe Magnarelli, Walt Weiskopf and Samora Pinderhughes. 


The idea behind Freedom Suite Ensuite came from a succession of regular gigs that Nicolas participated in with a two horns, chord-less quartet. He began to find a new identity for his bass within this assemblage, including an increased influence on the music’s direction, an expanded range of expression and an added focus on soloing. There were also many examples of similar ensembles whose recordings began to inspire his conception more and more, including John Coltrane and Don Cherry’s Avant Garde, Ron Carter’s Etudes and Ben Wolfe’s 13 Sketches


The sound identities of these ensembles were definitely in Nicolas’ mind as he chose who he would record with. Drummer Kenny Washington was a faculty member at Juilliard  while Nicolas attended. Nicolas’s appreciation for the master drummer’s breadth and taste were echoed by Washington, who recommended the bassist to many. Tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart has been playing with Nicolas for many years now and proves to be an excellent foil and soloist, very articulate both harmonically and melodically. The trumpet duty is split between the introspective Brandon Lee, a supportive bandmate and focused soloist, and the fiery Bruce Harris, a soulful player suited for the recording’s blues and standard tunes. 


Nicolas wanted to achieve a few things with the recording. He wanted to attempt a new version of Sonny Rollins’ legendary “Freedom Suite,” a piece that has been done exclusively by saxophonists. Here he wanted to add the trumpet to freshen up the piece in a respectful way. The “Suite” would be followed by the “Ensuite,” or in French, “afterwards,” a full program of original compositions by Nicolas, written specifically for this band. The program concludes with Nicolas’ s beautifully played solo rendition of Richard Rodgers’s “Little Girl Blue.” 


Progress in jazz music has come through both addition and subtraction. While Clovis Nicolas retained the elements of formal jazz harmony, his experiments with removing piano and guitar from his ensembles enabled a different side of his playing to emerge. Freedom Suite Ensuite encapsulates all of the elements of Nicolas’s fascination with this system, from inspiration, to composition and to presentation.