Cincinnati transplants, vocalist Petra van Nuis and guitarist Andy Brown have reoccurred in my writings for Chicago Jazz Magazine over the years. The last time I wrote about guitarist Andy Brown, it was as a sideman on my review of mandolin virtuoso Don Stiernberg’s Good Numbers CD. I mentioned how I had spent many, many hours at the gone but not forgotten venue Katerina’s listening to Brown play both solo and in groups. But, I have known his musical and life partner Petra van Nuis even a few months longer.
I made my second visit to Katerina’s one Friday evening in the autumn of 2006 to hear (then Chicago, now California jazz vocalist) Amanda Crumley. As was typical of the warm environment and friendliness of this establishment, I immediately struck up a conversation not only with Crumbly, but also with Mercedes Landazuri (then lead vocalist for the Rio Bamba band) whom I had met in the audience. Then later, after I had my coat on and was in the process of leaving with practically one foot out the door, a very pretty brunette approached and immediately introduced herself as Petra van Nuis. I would return many more times to see her and Brown perform there. Lessons Lyrical is their new CD dedicated to the memory of the late Cincinnati vocalist Ann Chamberlain, their mentor, who I once had the privilege of seeing perform at Katerina’s.
Through Landazuri, I developed a friendship with her band-mate, electric bassist John Garvey, who shared my admiration for Brown’s musical skill and sometimes accompanied me when I went back to Katerina’s to hear him. Frequently, a topic of our conversation was a discussion of why and how we both felt that Brown’s guitar managed to sound better—fuller and richer—than a solo guitar in a small nightclub should have any right to sound. As it turned out, we were not the only ones who thought so. Dave Jemilo, owner of the Green Mill was quoted by Howard Reach in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “It was really cool—the solo thing. I never realized how important it is to be able to (play) a certain way that makes it different than playing with a lot of people. He’s throwing a bass line as he is going along, and a melody, interspersing it all to make it sound like more than just a guitar. People were digging it, and it was good.” Garvey and I were definitely digging it.
Andy Brown Performing at the Green Mill
Brown puts his emphasis on the overall emotional impact of his performance on the listener. He uses his music to reach deep into the heart and soul of his audience. While other guitarists may choose material specifically to showcase their technique, Brown seems to want to highlight his own ability to evoke emotion. Not that his technique is anyway lacking. When it is called for, Brown can play stridently, delicately, elaborately or with all the requisite volume and drama. But it seems his natural instinct is to allow the music itself to dictate his musical decisions, to allow subtlety and restraint, to be prominent among his choices of artistic weaponry, and to know and really believe that a well thought out and properly executed phrase or even pause can have tremendous dramatic impact on the sophisticated listener. Brown emphasizes warmth, beauty and musicality over spectacle and drama, making every note count and quickly convincing even the most cynical and biased listener of the sincerity of his play.
For almost the last decade, Petra van Nuis has been the face of Petra’s Recession Seven, a traditional and early swing jazz band with Brown, reedist Eric Schneider, trumpeter Bob Ojeda, trombonist Russ Phillips, bassist Dan DeLorenzo and drummer Bob Rummage.
Petra's Recession Seven
The voice of van Nuis has been described as “light, gorgeous, and fairly delicate” by Frank John Barley of Downbeat magazine. I would add charming, unique and enticing. Barley also warns that “there is both security and risk in striving to have a blended sound with, the [Brown’s] guitar and mirroring her man’s sparked, uncluttered, less-is-more style... Joined at the conjugal hip, Brown and van Nuis share a gift for melody and have plenty of rhythmic confidence. They project naturalness when phrasing and their overall intelligence makes understatement and subtlety virtues.”
Sometimes van Nuis is compared to greats Blossom Dearie or Peggy Lee because of a perceived tonal similarity between their voices. In other words, you are somewhat less than likely to hear van Nuis shake the walls, or rattle the ceiling, by belting out a tune while channeling the spirit of Ethel Merman. Dearie’s song selection included many fast-paced jazz standards, but I prefer her on her rarer slow ones like “Tea For Two” (Youmans/Caesar) or “I’ll Take Manhattan” (Rodgers/Hart). Whereas, I think van Nuis really does shine brightest on some quicker paced selections like “It Had Better Be Tonight” (Mancini/Migliacci/Mercer) or “Devil May Care” (Dorough).
Cincinnati’s loss has definitely been Chicago’s gain.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.
Keep up with Andy Brown at www.andybrownguitar.com
Keep up with Petra van Nuis at www.petrasings.com