“I wanted to play the saxophone, and had for as long as I can remember,” explains Chris West. Despite starting his musical journey with the trumpet in elementary school, “saxophone has always felt very natural to me,” he says. While always returning to his weapon of choice, West has always tilted toward establishing a broad musical foundation for himself; in the late-’90s he took up study of flute and clarinet at Belmont before seeking a masters in Jazz Studies, and later teaching at Western Kentucky University. Not bad for a sax-man.
Since 1998 when his song “Dreams” was nominated for a Nashville Music Award (NAMMY), West has also gained a reputation as a highly regarded live player — having performed and toured with acts ranging from Johnny Reid, Brenda Lee, the Dynamites, My Morning Jacket, and Brian Setzer — while simultaneously solidifying himself as a cornerstone of Nashville’s music scene through roles with the Guy Smiley Blues Exchange, Halfbrass, and the JunkYard Horns. While much acclaim for the player stems from his artistic dexterity as a live performer, it’s his ability to craft and hone music within the recording arena is something he has become increasingly fond of; a focus that perhaps dates back to the early influence of a key mentor.
After joining a jazz band program in his school, West decided to take lessons, “and that’s when I met Jeff Coffin.” A three-time Grammy Award winner who’s performed, toured, and recorded with numerous high-profile the likes of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, the Dave Matthews Band, and Umphrey’s McGhee, Coffin’s guidance introduced him to new concepts in and outside the realm of musical theory. “Jeff had a way of incorporating life lessons with music, in ways that helped me develop my approach to playing, and my musical concept/approach all together (not to mention, it helped me develop as a person).” In 2006 those lessons manifested in West’s debut album, Jazzmanic.
“I think my evolution as a player/musician in that time was based on a combination of my practice, schooling, and life experiences. I was lucky to get to study with Don Aliquo at MTSU as a grad student, and I really felt I took it to the next level, so to speak, as a player. I feel that Don really helped me to learn to enjoy practicing. Up until that point, it was something I just had to do to get better.” While he began writing the music that would land on his Surprise Trilogy back in college, the three albums he released in 2011 solidified West’s place as one of Nashville’s most promising young jazz players. The Nashville Scene praised the series through multiple articles that year, calling the Trilogy “a gumbo of top-notch jazz, blues and greasy New Orleans funk seasoned with a sprinkle of sly musical humor,” while adding that “West is establishing himself as one of the area’s top jazz artists.”
Much of West’s musical focus these days is split between the JunkYard Horns (“a 12 piece funk/jazz ensemble fronted by a 7 piece horn section“) and Halfbrass, which “mixes traditional brass band music with funk, jazz and rock.” “I think the main difference is that Halfbrass for me has boundaries,” he says. “When we create new music, we try to keep in within the style of New Orleans brass band (both traditional, or modern), but at the same time, making it unique with our sound. When I write for the JunkYard Horns, I don’t try to stay within any boundaries as far as melody and harmony. That’s not to say that it doesn’t fit into any category, so to speak, but I just write with no restrictions, so what comes out is my natural sound.”
With three years now standing between him and the release of his Trilogy, West has returned to the studio where he looks to once again challenge his range. “I have a couple of albums in the works,” he says. “I am about to finish up an experimental big band album, hopefully I’ll be releasing it towards the end of the year, and I’m also in the pre-production stages of a JunkYard Horns album, and possibly DVD.” When asked where he finds the most satisfaction, in the studio or on the stage, West says he’s finding more and more fulfillment from the compositional element of recording. “I love recording albums,” he continues. “And that’s something that I feel I will always do.”
[This article was first published by the Nashville Fringe Festival.]