Franklinton venue Filament brings another exciting tour to Columbus with drummer-composer Dan Pugach’s Nonet on Wednesday, May 15th at 9pm. Tickets and details here. Pugach and band come to town riding high on 2018’s acclaimed album Plus One, which earned Pugach and vocalist Nicole Zuraitis a Grammy nomination for their arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” I spoke with Pugach by phone prior to the tour, continue reading for parts of that conversation and live video of this wide-ranging band.
The Nonet features two of our area’s finest natives, trombonist Sam Blakeslee and guitarist Brandon Coleman. I asked Pugach about that Ohio connection and he replied, “I met Sam in the Jazz Ahead program in 2011 and we connected instantly. I would come to Ohio and play with his band, he would visit New York [before moving here].”
Plus One features nine pieces, varied in mood and linked by an intensity and immediacy. It stands out for its accessibility without being pandering. I asked Pugach how he struck that careful balance. He said, “We got a residency at Rockwood Music Hall,” a New York venue known for rock, world music, and singer-songwriters. “I knew I couldn’t play everything I wanted. I couldn’t play the long pieces, intricate and jazzy [and hold that audience]. I had to make shorter versions, play pop and soul, more groove-based, we even covered Justin Timberlake. The arrangements I wrote for those shows ended up on the record balanced with pieces that are super jazzy and complex.”
“[The choice of covers] is thanks to Nicole Zuraitis, the vocalist. She brought us the Chick Corea tune [Crystal Silence] and ‘Jolene’ was one of her Mother’s favorite songs. ‘Jolene’ we worked up as a duet and it grew into one of the Nonet’s signature pieces, I arranged it to get some ‘street cred’ with her Mother,” he chuckles. “And it worked. Though it made her Dad jealous, and I had to write some stuff for him too.”
Their “Jolene” is a master-class in the way an arrangement can color and expand a tune without abandoning its core values. It has a bone-deep understanding of the iron-willed defiance and intense vulnerability at the beating heart of the Parton song. The four songs featuring vocals on Plus One also includes an original, the sharp and funny “Our Blues.” Pugach said, “That started with another singer and when we rewrote it with Nicole’s new lyrics, we’d had a fight and she channeled that into the song. ‘Oh, I’ll write you a blues.’”
Asked about keeping a band this size working, Pugach said, “You need to be okay with those challenges. We rehearse in my apartment where I have a piano and drum set; we move everything out of the living room and I’m very lucky to have cool neighbors, thank God for that. Otherwise we’d have to rent space. Many venues hear nonet and don’t want anything to do with it, ‘We only have trios.’ We say in New York we play the 55,” a classic West Village bar not known for being spacious, “All the time. And we fit in there comfortably.”
Turning the question toward the pleasures of this band, Pugach said, “It’s hard, but it’s totally worth it. I’ve got band members who will go anywhere with me, from Israel to LA to Columbus. They’ll bring their own cars if they need to; they’ll sleep on floors if they need to. And these are top-class cats, the best players in New York City.”
Asked about how the Grammy nod affected perceptions of his music and the ensemble, Pugach’s answer was remarkably clear-eyed. “I’m sure it’s opened doors and will open doors but you still have to do the work. If anything, it’s lit a fire to make the next thing even better, to write more and better music.”
The chance to catch this dynamic ensemble during the ascent of their recognition and at the height of their powers in a small room is not to be missed.