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Nicolas Meier

Way out east from Jazzwise, 2005

Guitarist Nicolas Meier takes on a new musical direction with his latest album. INTERVIEW::TOM BARLOW

Swiss-born, Berklee-trained Nicolas Meier leads a double life. Besides conjuring up middle-eastern magic and western jazz on his new release Orient, the guitar virtuoso is a heavy metal freak.

"I'm a jazz player - definitely - but I also like diversity, and playing rock gives me a chance to do something more powerful once in a while," grins the 32-year-old, who has written instruction manuals on jazz harmony and heavy metal rhythm guitar.

"I love metal's power and energy and at the same time I love jazz's deep emotion. Both styles can give high energy but in different directions or different worlds."

On his latest album, Meier takes his previously fusion-oriented music into new worlds whilst firmly promoting his love for genre-collision with the help of stylistic nomad Gilad Atzmon on clarinet and saxes, bassist Tom Mason and Israeli drummer Asaf Sirkis. The concoction of pastoral Latin, flamenco and middle-eastern influences has a distinct Eurojazz feel, whilst Dave O'Higgins applies some of his tenor chops to ensure the music has a touch of grit.

On this his second album, Meier swaps the Telecaster for the oud-like fretless acoustic guitar, a Godin nylon string and the saz, a traditional Turkish instrument ("it's very melancholic and beautiful," he explains). While the bandleader's giddy virtuosity is not lost, the resulting melodic flavour is deliberate.

"I was always influenced by ECM music from the first time I heard jazz," he confesses. "I love it because it gives a lot of space for improvisers to go wherever they want. A lot of freedom. Although in other ways, I grew up listening to fusion - Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and the Brecker Brothers."

Based in London for the past five years and married to a Turkish wife, Meier is no stranger to multi-culturalism. As a child in Fribourg, diversity was commonplace with various parts of town speaking different European languages. It was not long before Meier was soaking up both John McLaughlin and rock maestro Joe Satriani before finding the affinity with swing and bebop that would inspire his journey to Berklee.

"London is fantastic - a kind of an in-between for Europe and America, which is why I liked it," he explains. "It has so many diamonds musically and I guess I found my diamonds in guys like Gilad - he's a great player because he comes from Israel so he has all this Arabic phrasing down and he's a fantastic bebop player too, so he can really mix those two emotionally."

Meier also credits drummer Asaf Sirkis for opening his ears to Middle-Eastern music, while Songul, his wife has broadened his horizons by introducing him to music from her native country. In the meantime, Meier namedrops the great Flamenco guitarist Tomatito as an influence from time spent in Sevilla and Barcelona with his friend and piano player Jose Reinoso.

Yet despite the pot-pourri of sounds swirling in his head, Meier's jazz education began conventionally. After studying arrangement with Francis Boland, Meier moved to America to study in Boston in 1994

"I couldn't dream of a better place to go. It was such a diverse place with so many great young players - to me to stay playing with them was great for competition, it allowed me to reach a much higher level. Also with the teachers we had a choice between 40 guitar tutors and some were more rock or bebop oriented, so you could really find the one who suited you."

At Berklee, Meier's inclinations were to jam with Latin and Brazilian musicians as well as trie Americans, "just lor the diversity." As a result, Latin remains a strong influence on his current work.

After graduating, Meier took the decision to move back to Switzerland in 1998, forming the Meier Group who quickly became festival favourites. In the meantime, childhood dreams came true at the Montreux festival, when he jammed with the likes of Rachelle Ferrel, George Duke, Macy Gray and Will Calhoun.

An open-minded performer, his talk is devoid of any bias against US jazz.

"I don't think it's a case of American music being less progressive," he argues. "In some senses the standard there is better, but I needed to go back to Europe and be in a culture that I found comfortable with a certain standard of living. I know Europeans who go to work in New York but after 10 years they just long to return to Europe. It's tough to survive there as a musician."

After arriving in London, Meier cut the rock-oriented Ribbon in the Wind in 2002.

"It was totally fusion oriented," says the guitarist, "with percussion and two horns so it had a Brecker influence, and a bit of Mike Stern too. But afterwards, I wanted a change of direction and also something that would be interesting to more people. The melody of flamenco was influencing me too, but then the experience of not having many concerts the direction changed and I found that developing my acoustic playing

Ironically, it is by leaving first love (the electric guitar) to heavy metal projects that Meier has found his identity in jazz.

"I think playing only acoustic guitar has been key," he concludes. "Before with the Telecaster and adding distortion always referenced Mike Stern! When I fell in love with the acoustic I just tried to develop my own way of improvising using some oriental phrasing combined with western styles. Mixing those meant I was really trying to play different. Great players play different and that's why they're known and loved. I'm just trying to work towards this."

© Tom Barlow, Jazzwise, 2005.