If you’re looking for another smokin’ alto player to add to your list of people to check out, Nick Biello is your guy. Besides being as a top-notch alto player, Nick can also be seen playing bari, tenor, and soprano in various groups. I first saw videos of Nick playing alto saxophone when I was watching the audition videos for the Julius Keilwerth “Saxophone Idol” competition (see “Have You Met Miss Jones” video below) and was impressed by his overall sound, rhythm, and technical proficiency on the horn.
Since then, Nick has continued to play around New York as well as tour for quite some time. I am very excited that I was finally able to connect with Nick and share his story. For those of you who haven’t listened to Nick nor know how he got his start, I have included a quick bio to get everyone up to speed.
- Nick has played with such artists as Slide Hampton, Cedar Walton, the Jimmy Heath Big Band, Rich Perry, Phil Markowitz, Steve Davis, Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band, Clarence Penn, John Benitez, Henry Cole, Harvie S, Victor Bailey, Jaimoe Johnson, and Butch Trucks of the Allman Brothers.
- He has performed at such festivals such as the Pescara and Bussi Jazz Festivals in Italy, the Litchfield Jazz Festival, the New Haven Jazz Festival, and the Westchester Jazz Festival.
- Nick’s saxophone has been heard at venues such as the Blue Note, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center, The Iridium, B.B. King’s, The House of Blues in Chicago, The Paramount Theater, The Birchmere Theater, Smalls, Smoke, Zinc Bar, The Kitano, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, Bar Next Door, Rockwood Music Hall, Webster Theater, Infinity Hall, and Toad’s Place.
- Nick was accepted to the John F. Kennedy Center’s prestigious “Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead” program in 2009. The program focuses on developing the compositional skills of participants through masterclasses and workshops. Its faculty boasts some of the most respected names in jazz, such as Jason Moran, Ralph Peterson, and Mark Whitfield.
- The Blue Note selected the Nick Biello Quartet to participate in their Thelonious Monk Emerging Artist Series in 2010. The series focused on young, upcoming talent in Jazz. The Quartet shared the stage with vibraphone legend Gary Burton.
- In 2014, Nick joined the Martin Schulte Quartet for a 2-week concert series in Seoul, Korea. Topping off the tour was a performance and masterclass for the German Consulate of Korea.
- Nick was the winner of the Julius Keilwerth 2014 International Saxophone Idol Competition.
- Nick has been recorded on many albums, from his own original projects to his work as a sideman for other artists. His debut album, “Vagabond Soul,” released in 2017 on the Truth Revolution Recording Collective.
- As a composer and arranger, Nick has written arrangements that have been performed by Stevie Wonder, Dave Koz, and Kelly Rowland, and his work has been televised on networks such as ABC and ESPN, and heard in venues in Las Vegas, L.A., and New York City.
- Nick studied with Jackie McLean, Steve Wilson, George Garzone, Jon Gordon, and Phil Markowitz, and holds a Master of Music Degree from Manhattan School of Music.
- From an education standpoint, Nick is available as a group clinician or as a private teacher. He is an Instructor of Saxophone at New Jersey City University, a performing artist and clinician at the Drayton Harbor Music Festival in Washington, and teaches privately via Skype.
- Nick is a D’addario Woodwinds Artist and uses D’addario reeds and accessories. Nick is also a Silverstein Artist and uses Silverstein ligatures.
ZS: How did you become interested in playing music and how did you decide on the saxophone?
NB: I started my musical journey at the earliest age possible because my father was a professional classical flautist and was always playing music from symphonic to classical to Charlie Parker, Coltrane, and the Beatles which got me super interested in music as something that I wanted to pursue. I started on violin at age of two or three which I don’t have much recollection of but we used the Suzuki method which was good for my ear training and then I moved onto studying classical piano.
When I was in the fourth grade, we had to pick a band instrument and I figured having heard the sound of the alto saxophone, particularly Charlie Parker and David Sanborn, that this was the instrument I was going to choose. Those were the two first saxophonists that really struck me. I had never before heard anyone play the way Bird played, and Sanborn’s sound is why I really gravitated towards the alto saxophone.
When I started playing the alto saxophone, I studied with my dad and we covered musical essentials. I think my dad really directed me towards the right things to listen to. I never studied with a private teacher officially or formally and primarily practiced by listening to the music and transcribing. I was really listening to a lot of Cannonball, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, and Sonny Rollins all throughout high school as I really gravitated towards this music and learning how to improvise. I remember in high school attending the Litchfield Jazz Camp which was actually the first year it was held. I recall getting my butt kicked by the teachers because at that time I would say I had a bit of an ego, and the teachers gave me a really good reality check.
After that camp, going into my junior and senior year of high school, I practiced 8 hours a day and got really serious about practicing because I realized there are a lot of great players out there and if I was going to be successful then I had to work really hard. I was practicing through the Rubank series of books and the Universal Method For Saxophone as well as reading whatever I could.
When I started to practice jazz and improvisation in a more organized way was when I began working on Cannonball’s “Autumn leaves” solo from the album Somethin’ Else. I remember being over my grandparent’s house and sitting at the stereo and just transcribing that solo for hours, and this was the first solo that made me take the language of jazz and break it down and move it around.
Upon graduation, I decided to study at The Hartt School of Music and had the opportunity to study with Mr. McLean who was a major influence on my playing and my sense of musicality. I was able to take some private lessons from Mr. McLean. and being able to take jazz history from Mr. McLean was such a gift. I remember when I took lessons with Mr. Mclean he would just sit and play, and you would then play the phrase back to him, or he would play a blues and you would just listen and take in his sound, phrasing, articulation, etc. which was really an experience for me. For me, this was the first time taking private lessons one-on-one on a regular basis and having things broken down for me.
When I came in, I didn’t know what an altered chord was, for example, and I just learned from listening to records and having a good ear which was how I thought everyone was supposed to learn. This routine – transcribing and listening- helped me, but I realized it was not helpful when I started teaching. What this taught me was I needed to learn more about the music and how to navigate the way each individual student might be learning about the music.
I did not look at too many other schools before choosing Hartt at that time since I had a lot of friends who were a bit older than me, and while attending the Hartt School of Music, they took me under their wing and introduced me to such records as Speak No Evil and Africa Brass. I also was interested in attending Hartt to learn from Ray Mcmoring (tenor), Wayne Escofery (tenor), Steve Davis (trombone), and Nat Reeves (bass), to name a few faculty, and this was a great place to get started. Unfortunately, I was not mature enough to stick with it at that time, so I stayed at Hartt for two years before dropping out and just started to gig.
I took five to six years off of college and just did a lot of playing with a weekly church gig, directing choirs, and still studying pipe organ since I was interested in Bach and Messiaen. During that time, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my career because I was playing saxophone and at the same time was practicing pipe organ.
When I decided to go back to school, I went to The University of Western Connecticut which had a good pipe organ program and for my undergrad, I got a degree in classical pipe organ. After I finished, I realized I didn’t want to be a full time professional pipe organist, so I really needed to choose between the saxophone and the pipe organ, and since the saxophone was my first love, I ended up receiving a scholarship to attend Manhattan School of Music (MSM) to get my Masters.
I was excited to attend MSM because I wanted to study with Steve Wilson and George Garzone, and was always fascinated with (David) Liebman’s music and his vast universal way of approaching the music, which I really dug.
I really wanted to study with Steve because I really liked his sound and view him as the perfect alto player. Steve plays the instrument in an ego-less kind of way and there is such a pure beauty to his playing and sound that he always brings out the authenticity of any music he’s playing.
For Garzone, no one plays with George’s triadic and chromatic approach which totally changed my playing and opened me up to different possibilities, and I still continue to study his approach pretty regularly.
After graduating MSM, I stayed in New York and was lucky enough that I already had a nice network of musicians, so I was already starting to play a wide variety of gigs and booking local venues with my own group.
ZS: As you progressed as a student to where you are today, who were your main influences growing up as well as who have you been checking out lately?
NB: I am always bouncing back between more modern players and the greats. For me it was always Bird, Stitt, Jackie McLean, Sonny Rollins, Dexter, Bud Powell, Trane. From a modern players perspective, I have been on a Kenny Garrett kick listening to Song Book and Seeds From The Underground. I also really love listening to Chris Cheek, especially the album A Girl Named Joe. The few others modern players I have been listening to quite a bit is Steve Grossman, Tom Harrell, Jerry Bergonzi, and Jon Gordon.
ZS: What are some key lessons you’ve learned playing the saxophone that you have passed on to you students and what have you been working on lately (exercises included)?
NB: I have been teaching Skype students privately and I also am the saxophone teacher for the jazz majors at New Jersey City University, which has been a blast. What I realized is that the more organized a player is, the better the results, along with a higher potential for a player to internalize the information.
As improvisors, we need to be able to decode these difficult musical concepts, and once we understand them, we are only at the first stage of incorporating these ideas into our playing.
The next step is we need to be able to move these ideas around in different keys and shapes. Finally we need to be able to be expressive and creative with them by applying them to a solo.
I have my students keep notebooks. The more organized the notebook, the better. I have quite a few notebooks that will cover topics such as diminished ideas, shapes, augmented patterns, transcriptions, and tune ideas, and I try to keep my notebooks super-organized and date each entry. I find that practicing something three or four days in a row and shedding it for 30 minutes a day is a good way to reinforce a concept or idea because I struggle to have an idea or shape down in just one practice session.
Bergonzi talks about practicing mentally away from the horn, which I do whether watching a movie or hanging with friends by still thinking about the pattern and getting it more entrenched in my mind and thought process. Taking something and putting it over tunes is a step I as well as my students forget to do sometimes, and this is very important not to forget.
Two Exercises from Nick
ZS: How have you adjusted to Covid from a musical as well as business perspective?
NB: I unfortunately caught Covid early on in March, which was definitely rough, but the good news is I am still here, which is all that matters. With Covid and things unfortunately shutting down, I did focus on taking a break so I was playing some video games and watching movies on Netflix for a little bit. At the same time, I also got really into shedding and writing music.
I will say I am really lucky that my college gig is still happening and I have been teaching students privately via Skype, which has helped me keep a steady stream of income. I am also lucky to be still playing some private functions here and there which are all outside and socially distanced. For me personally, Covid gave me some time to get more in touch with myself and figure things out, which has had a positive effect on my musicality.
ZS: When it comes to practicing, what is your process for maintaining your current skill as well as expanding on what you already know?
NB: I used to practice in a very organized format which was: sound, technique, reading, and then improvising.
I find now that I am less organized and don’t always practice long tones, scales, or always practice with a metronome. Now I am practicing more of what I can’t do, because I found I was practicing things I knew pretty well which was not the most effective use of my time.
I make a shed list on my phone every single night, and I find that it is really important to make a to-do list the night before along with how many minutes to spend on each topic. I hold myself to that time and even if I’m struggling with a certain area, I’ll just work on that concept tomorrow.
I also try to practice as if I was on the gig. I try to stand up, just like when playing a gig, or use drum genius and play along with the actual time. I am trying to mimic the actual gig as much as possible. I am practicing not just to practice but practicing to perform.
ZS: After completing your Bachelors as well as Master of Music, what areas do you feel jazz programs need to improve upon to better position players for the “real world” upon graduation?
NB: Most programs seem to have some sort of business class that teaches you about the industry, hiring a publicist, and how to get booked at clubs. I think there should be a class on interpersonal relationships, how to approach people, how to conduct yourself as a professional, expectations others will have of you, and really, how to be a professional person.
There are clearly more talented musicians then there are gigs available and the cats that are the most successful are not always the most talented (although it helps!). Those who are successful are often personable, and have people who just want to be in their presence.
I wish someone told me it’s not just about being able to play the heck out of the saxophone, but also that you need to be a person that is seen as open and approachable. I, personally, can be kind of shy, and I realized I wasn’t being called as much as I wanted to be because I wasn’t being a social person and it’s amazing how many people don’t know how to be social.
ZS: What current projects are you working on right now?
NB: Universal is my new album that is currently in the post-production stage (tentative release date 2021). I am very into astronomy and the album for me is spiritual and about how small we are compared to the Universe, and that we need to take a look at ourselves as people. I am part of a saxophone quartet (SNAP) which is made up of Paul Jones, Sam Dillon, Andrew Gould, and me. Sam Dillon and I have an electric band which we are in the process of writing music for, and in which we will both be playing saxophone and EWI.
Finally, I have been working on a few video projects with the great keyboard player Jeremy Jordan, which will be released on YouTube and Instagram.
ZS: Is there something you would like to share that you believe many people don’t know about you?
NB: I just got two sleeves [arm tattoos] recently and they are of the Selmer style engraving (balanced action portrait). I always wanted a tattoo and didn’t just want to get one to get one, but when I saw the engraving on my horn I thought it would a great tattoo.
ZS: What are your thoughts on the importance of the equipment? Do you find yourself changing much or sticking with the same gear?
NB: I used to go through so much equipment from playing a high baffle to a large chamber mouthpiece. The equipment should allow you to just produce a sound that you want to get without fighting it and should allow you to attain a vast variety of colors and expressive textures. I want equipment that is really malleable and flexible with my sound.
- Soprano: Selmer Series III Black lacquer
- Alto: Selmer Mark VI 112,xxx
- Tenor: Selmer Omega paired with KB Vanguard unlacquered neck
- Baritone: Selmer Mark VI 170,xxx (Low Bb)
- Soprano: D’Addario H Ligature
- Alto: Silverstein Ligature (original)
- Tenor: Silverstein Ligature (original)
- Baritone: Silverstein Ligature (original)
- Soprano: D’Addario Reserve 4.0
- Alto: D’Addario Select Jazz 3M unfiled or a Hemke 3.0
- Tenor: D’Addario Select Jazz 3M unfiled
- Baritone: D’Addario Select Jazz 3M unfiled
- Soprano: Selmer C*
- Alto: SK Modus (6)
- Tenor: D’Addario Select Jazz (6) or Otto Link “New Vintage” Link (7)
- Baritone: Vintage Slant Sig hard rubber (8*)
- Just Joe’s: (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone)
- Soprano: Bam Trekking
- Alto: Bam Cabine
- Tenor: Bam Cabine
- Baritone: Krontite Softpak Case (Reunion Blues)