Walk into the studio of most famous guitarists and you’ll feel like you’re at Guitar Center, spotting a massive collection of axes, each of which offers the right sound for their latest projects. Nils has gleefully defied that collector stereotype, scoring hit after contemporary urban jazz radio hit since his breakthrough 2005 single “Pacific Coast Highway” by modulating the sound of a single, trusty musical companion – the Custom Valley Arts guitar he bought shortly after moving to Los Angeles from his native Munich in the mid-80’s. On his latest BAJA/TSR album Play, he celebrates yet another opportunity to do what he does best on that instrument, with longtime musical friends (some of whom he’s recording with for the first time) who happen to be among the genre’s most renowned artists.
Jazz Gems: The Best of Nils, his 2014 retrospective set compiling all of the artist’s airplay hits to date (“Pacific Coast Highway,” “Let’s Bounce,” a cover of Toto’s “Georgy Porgy,” “Ready to Play,” “Catnap,” et al), rolls like a master class not only in hit instrumental songwriting but also in the art of collaborating. Extending that spirit powerfully into Play, Nils complements his longtime core band of Clydene Jackson (keyboards, vocals), percussionist Oliver C. Brown and bassist Darryl Williams with drummers Gorden Campbell, Tony Moore and Eric Valentine, pianists Gail Jhonson and Mitchel Forman, bassist Roberto Vally, keyboardists Philippe Saisse and Nate Harasim and saxophonists Steve Cole (solo), Brandon Willis (solo), Charley Langer (horn section) and Mike Parlett (horn section).
Nils continues to cultivate an incredible creative chemistry with his pal and neighbor Johnny Britt, who, the guitarist says, “sings and plays keyboards and horns, three things I don’t do!” Britt infuses Play with his multitude of talents, from playing keys on the sparkling funk opener “Coast To Coast” and Rhodes, trumpet swells and a trumpet solo on the sensual, old school soul ballad “Sway” to adding a dynamic vocal scat to the jamming, high octane first single “Straight Down the Line” and vocals (with Jackson) on a passionate tribute to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” Britt also brings his sizzling horn textures (via the J-Jam Horns) to a total of six tracks, including “Coast To Coast,” the infectious and danceable, gospel influenced anthem “We Got Love,” the fiery, top down party funk explosion “California” and the powerhouse old school, James Brown influenced “So Get On Up.”
Nils is the first to admit that he sometimes overstocks albums like his most recent project Alley Cat (2015) with so many in the pocket, potential airplay hits that some are inevitably overlooked; “Two of a Kind” and the title track were both Billboard Top 20 airplay hits from that recording. For Play, he took a more streamlined compositional approach, balancing upbeat “trademark” radio ready gems with fresh stylistic excursions that find Nils exploring a deeper personal artistry and the more colorful sonic possibilities of his axe.
To that end, “Goldfinger” is not the James Bond theme, but a stripped down, laid back ballad featuring the interaction of uniquely modulated rhythm and lead guitar lines. He named the track after the Goldfinger amp he uses for the lead (he used a Bogner amp for the rhythm part). Another colorful departure is the trippy, mystical closer “Fire of My Heart,” which is driven by a Dark Side of the Moon-inspired vibe and includes a symphonic, new agey intro, a reverb melody section, offbeat machine generated vocals and a build towards an exuberant gospel choir crescendo.
Nils’ success as creator of some of the genre’s most identifiable hits – including “Let’s Bounce,” “Ready to Play, “Catnap” and “Shake It,” – has led to his becoming a powerful behind the scenes force for many established and emerging artists. Over the past decade, he has complemented his own prolific output by helming tracks and albums for saxophonist Reggie Codrington, guitarist Keith Andrews and pianists Al DeGregoris, David Hunte and Brian Simpson. His recent production credits include Nate Harasim’s “Harmony Park” (featuring Dave Koz), tracks on saxophonist Gary Palmer’s new Coast 2 Coast album, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Alvin Pope’s hit single “Rio” and a new project for singer Lisa Addeo.