Nicki Parrott: It’s Possible to Sing and Play the Bass

An interview with the Australian-born bassist and vocalist about her latest album and her long tenure with Les Paul

Nicki Parrott (photo by Brian Wittman)
Nicki Parrott (photo by Brian Wittman)

Bassist Nicki Parrott is truly a musician’s musician. Except that she also sings. Although she came a little late to the vocals game, she’s become an accomplished singer, both as a recording artist and as a performer. Her latest album, New York to Paris, is her eighth for Arbors Records and beautifully showcases her unique voice on a set of standards inspired by those two iconic cities. Of course, she also plays bass on the album, which features Harry Allen on saxophone, Gil Goldstein on accordion, John DiMartino on piano, and Alvin Atkinson on drums.

Born and raised in a small town outside Sydney, Australia, Parrott absorbed the music of jazz greats from America and eventually followed that sound to the United States in the ’90s. Jazz and music insiders often recognize her from her long-term stint with the legendary Les Paul at his famous Monday-night gig at Iridium in New York City. Parrott became an onstage foil for Paul, who, clearly from another generation, liked to make fun of the “girl” in the band, while she in turn would make up songs making fun of him.

After Paul’s death in 2009, Parrott went on to a distinguished career as both a sideperson and a leader, in time recording more than 30 records for the Japan-based Venus label and the U.S.-based Arbors. Among those albums are interesting tributes to Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, Burt Bacharach, Nat King Cole, and even the Carpenters. Interestingly, Parrott’s voice is somewhat akin to Karen Carpenter with that sultry dusky sound. We don’t know if Karen Carpenter could swing and sing, but most assuredly Nicki Parrott can and does, often while playing the bass at the same time. Maybe that’s why she’s become a first-call bassist for so many mainstream jazz players, as well as a headliner as a vocalist at jazz venues and festivals worldwide, and a regular on The Jazz Cruise.

Parrott (pronounced Pa-ROT, not like the tropical bird) spoke with JazzTimes about her unusual path to become a fixture on the New York City jazz scene, as well as about working with Les Paul, doubling on vocals and bass, and what she learned from Ray Brown.

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JazzTimes: Growing up in Australia, bass was not your first instrument, right?

Nicki Parrott: No, I played piano, classical piano, and classical flute as well, from the age of five all the way through high school – marching  bands, concert bands. played piccolo in a band called the Marching Koalas and when I was 12, I got to march in the Rose Parade in Pasadena.

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It was 150 high school kids representing Australia, marching in the Rose Parade. It got me excited about traveling. Back then it was a long trip. Now you can do Sydney to LA direct. Back then you had a stopover in Hawaii. It took a long time to get there. That was my first taste of the States when I was 12 years old.

How were you introduced to the bass?

My sister Lisa plays alto and baritone. She was in a band with some friends from school and I really wanted to be in the band. She told me, “I don’t want a flute player in my band.” I said, “Well, what do you want?” And she said, “I need a bass player.” There was a bass in the band room at school. I took it home and it only had three strings on it. There was a bloke across the street and he said, “Don’t worry, you don’t need the last string because nobody hears the low notes anyway.” Typical Aussie kind of advice there. Then of course, I started going to Sydney and seeing some really good bass players. They all had four strings. So I wanted that fourth string.

I was primarily self-taught in the early days. I got a whole lot of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis records and I transcribed bass lines. Then I tried to play along with the records. I didn’t really have a teacher where I grew up in the suburbs of Newcastle which is two hours north of Sydney. I tried to learn by ear at first. Then of course I went to Sydney after high school to go to the Sydney Conservatorium where I studied with a great bass teacher. That ironed out a few bad habits.

You were transcribing some heavy stuff on the bass – Paul Chambers and Ron Carter with Miles, for example.

Yes, I transcribed those guys. Oscar Pettiford, too. I transcribed a lot of Ray Brown.

Did you get to know Ray later?

I had a lesson with Ray when he came to Sydney. I called up the hotel and I said, “Can I speak with Ray Brown?” They put me through to his room and he answered. I said, “My name is Nicki Parrott and I come to see all your gigs when you’re in Sydney.” He came to Sydney a lot to play with James Morrison. I said, “Do you have time for a lesson sometime?” He said, “Actually, it’s my day off and I want to play golf.”  Oh, okay. Then he said, “Can I get your number?” Maybe he checked with someone like James to find out, “Is she for real, does she really want to play bass?” He called me back and said, “How soon can you get here?” I said, “Twenty minutes.” I lived in Bondi. I headed over to the Sebel Townhouse in King’s Cross, downtown Sydney and I had a really inspirational lesson. I remember all the details of the lesson to this day.

What did you learn from the lesson with him?

I learned that your sound is yours. That you should try to get the same sound from any instrument. He picked up my bass and he sounded like Ray Brown. I was like, “Oh, okay.” He got such a good sound out of my bass. The biggest thing I learned was to develop a really good sound that’s yours. Then pick up any instrument and sound like yourself.  Which is a challenge because you have to play so many different basses on the road.

He taught me a lot about sound, bass lines and time. Real fundamentals. It was shocking at 20 years old to be standing in front of Ray Brown but it was a really good lesson.

Back in the day, lessons on the road were pretty common in part because the great jazz players would often do a week or so run of shows in an area and in part because there wasn’t much formal jazz education then.

Even though I did go to a jazz studies course, there is something about that personal connection. Meeting your heroes face to face, it’s the inspiration you get from that that you can’t teach in an institution. Hearing them play your bass, that’s really powerful.

You were into jazz pretty early. Was that because of your sister?

It was because of her. Also, we had some friends that we met through jazz camp and we started jamming on weekends. We met James Morrison and a lot of the Sydney jazz musicians from going to jazz camp. We started learning it together. The nice thing is that all those guys I grew up jamming with in high school are all full-time musicians.  Adrian Mears is a professor in Germany. My sister Lisa is a great player and arranger. The drummer Andrew Dickeson works all around Australia and now teaches at the Conservatorium of Sydney. John Foreman is the piano player who wrote the theme song for the Sydney Olympics and was a musical director for a TV show. Everyone went on and did things in music which is really exciting.

We all encouraged each other. When we were in Sydney, most of us went to the Conservatorium together. There was a lot happening in Sydney in those days. We kind of got lucky too because we started gigging straight away.

That’s very important.

Yes, it is. Even though I hadn’t been playing long and didn’t know enough tunes, I learned on the gig. Some of the professionals in Sydney were tough on me. “You gotta learn some tunes.” Or “You gotta be able to do more than this.” So I learned that way.

Do you remember your first paid gig?

I don’t think it was that good. I think it was a pub gig in Newcastle. We were all under-aged and nobody cared. Our piano player was 13 and we were 15 and 16. We played once a week and started to get a little following in our town. We all got hooked that way because we had fun learning together.

What was the decision to come to America?

In 1991 I got a week’s gig at Paris at the Caveau de la Huchette with an Australian band. I turned that into three months wandering around Europe and the States on a really small budget. I don’t know how I did it. I came to New York for a month and stayed at Hotel 17 in Gramercy. Back then Fat Tuesday’s, the Village Gate, Bradley’s were around. We just walked to places. Everything was there. I just immersed myself in jazz for a month and then went back to Australia. I decided that I needed to go back. I worked hard for a couple of years and took every gig I could. Then I applied for an Arts Council grant from the Australian government to come and study with Rufus Reid. He was at William Paterson, but I wanted to have private lessons. After the grant ran out, I met my first husband and I decided to stay.

Well, if I’m the Australian government, I’d have to be suspicious of your motives.

At the Sydney airport, my Mom asked me, “Hey, how long are you going to be over there?” I told her, “I’ll see you in six months.” I thought that six months would get it out of my system. I really did believe that at the time. I didn’t go back for two years. After six months I was sponsored by Kit McClure, who had a big band. I was then on an artist visa. That was back in 1994. I decided that I couldn’t go back. I had too much to learn here.

Les Paul and Nicki Parrott (photo by Christopher Lentz)
Les Paul and Nicki Parrott (photo by Christopher Lentz)

When and how did you get the gig with Les Paul?

I was in a group with David Spinozza and John Tropea [legendary session guitarists of the ‘70s and ‘80s]. It was a great learning opportunity because they liked everything – jazz, R&B, everything. I loved that. They’re great players and they took me under their wing and taught me a whole lot of the other tunes. We had nice arrangements. We had a nice repertoire and we thought, “We should sit in with Les Paul.” We went down to the club. Les knew them because they’d hung out a lot talking about multi-track. Les said, “We got some great guitar players here – Spinozza and Tropea, get up here.”

We played our repertoire. Les didn’t know who I was and we came up and did a few tunes together. And Les was listening. And then he said, “Okay, you guys can go and sit down now, but leave the girl up here.”

Les made a couple of jokes onstage after Spinozza and Tropea went off the stage. I made a joke back and he looked at me. I started subbing after that. And then from there, Les wanted me full-time.

The girl! That was the beginning of a decade of on-stage banter.

People would ask me, “How do you take those [sometimes sexist jibes]?” I’d get him back with a silly song sometimes. But the thing is, that was all a show. Offstage, he was really cool to me and very encouraging. He was very sweet. We’d talk on the phone during the week about sound and pickups – about getting a good sound. I was very fond of Les. He was good to me for ten years working with him.

Because of that long-running gig at the Iridium, you got to play with so many different people from different genres, who sat in with Les and the group.

At Les’ funeral one side of the room was a whole lot of jazz guys in suits and ties and on the other side you had Slash and rockers in black with long hair. It was a wild scene. But I treasure those years.

What did you learn from those years with Les?

Even up to the age of 94, Les knew how to put a show on. He loved that aspect of performing – talking to the audience, having a good time onstage. He was very curious. We had astronauts, actors, musicians onstage. He would have a conversation with them. He was very interested in people. He always wanted to know how things worked. He tried and tried even through chronic arthritis. His persistence amazed me. He was excited to be there. He’d stay and sign until two in the morning sometimes. He’d be tired but this is what kept him going. He had this unbelievable spirit. To be playing a regular gig in New York that was full and we’re mostly playing jazz. And to play with and meet all those different people. There was one show onstage and one show backstage, and both were just as fun.

You have a lengthy discography including a bunch of albums I hadn’t seen or heard before for the Japanese label Venus.

Most of those Venus albums were only released in Japan. I’ve been recording with Arbors for a long time. I did albums as a sideperson for many years and then did co-led records with pianist Rossano Sportiello. Then I started leading projects as an instrumentalist and vocalist with Arbors.

It’s clear from the current album that you’re comfortable in the studio and know how to make a record.

I love being in the studio with good musicians. There’s nothing better. If you have a good engineer, it’s the best experience. If you surround yourself with talented musicians, it will fall into place.

You’ve done a lot of theme albums, including ones devoted to Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, the Carpenters, Burt Bacharach… Tell me about Blossom Dearie.

She picked interesting repertoire that suited her. She picked good bands with great rhythm sections. My favorite record is Give Him the Ooh-La-La with Ray Brown, Jo Jones, and Herb Ellis. Just gorgeous. If you see her performances on YouTube, she’s very unapologetic. I like her feistiness. She’s just a little bit different and I find that interesting. In the ‘80s, she was playing a regular gig at Denny’s Skylight Lounge in New York City, but I never got to see her there.

What about Peggy Lee?

Completely different. An iconic voice, but it’s very smoky. And her delivery is so beautiful – her timing, her phrasing. It’s a completely different sound from Blossom, but it’s a very pleasant sound, her voice. Once again, she picked good material. And she was interesting. I’ve listened to interviews with Peggy and she didn’t want to do the usual thing. She wrote a lot of songs with her first husband Dave Barber. She did it all – acting, singing and composing.

When did you start singing? Did it start with Les?

Yes, I was just a bass player, but looking back I think he wanted a Mary Ford onstage a bit. He always had everyone do a feature. No one else soloed then. He wanted you to bring your “A” game and show off.  One night he stopped me in the middle of a bass solo and he said, “Is that all you’re going to do? Do you sing?” I said, “I sing in the shower, everybody does.” I remembered the words to “’Deed I Do” and I sang it. He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Leave that in.” So to keep my gig, I had to sing. Then I turned that into writing songs about him, when he’d give me a hard time onstage with his silly comments. I’d do a short song about him to get the audience back on my side. It became a little game.

What modern songwriters might have the same longevity as the Great American Songbook composers?

Paul Williams wrote great songs.  Of course, Bacharach. I’m going to write a Beatles medley for a project someone asked me to do. I’m going to be as creative as possible about it.

You’ve certainly gone through this challenge with your other albums.

You’ve got to be yourself. There was a point with the Blossom Dearie album where I was singing “I’m Hip” or one of those songs and Brian [her husband] said, “You’re sounding too much like Blossom.” I said, “But I’m doing a Blossom Dearie album.” He said, “No, sing it like you.” And I realized, “Yea, you’re right.” I’m listening to so much of her that I’m starting to mimic her almost.

Jose James went through that challenge with his Bill Withers album, walking that fine line between imitating and paying tribute.

It’s easier if I’m doing male singers. I did a Nat King Cole project and it was easier to sound different.

The other modern songwriter that jazz people mention is Stevie Wonder.

Absolutely. I always come back to his great songs. Good melodies, good chords. There’s so much from the ‘60s and ‘70s that I like to throw into a gig, because they’re so well-written and so well-crafted. You’ve got a lot to work with.

For your New York to Paris album, you used Gil Goldstein on accordion. He seemed like the perfect match for the Parisian songs.

I love his playing. He’s so interesting and different and thoughtful. Great guy, great musician.

Harry Allen is a very underrated saxophonist and he seems to represent the New York aspect of the album.

I’ve recorded with Harry for many of the Venus albums. He’s a team player which is important for any project. He’s a first taker. He can handle subtly shifting time meters. He’s one of the most professional musicians I know because he takes care of business and he’s a strong player. He has absorbed so much of the jazz tradition but he has his own voice. He’s of course influenced by Stan Getz. But when you hear him, you know it’s Harry. I have huge respect for him. He’s been so great to work and record with. For me he’s the consummate New York tenor player. You put anything in front of him and he’ll make music out of it and get to it quickly.

Was it difficult to pick the songs for the album?

You do start off with more and whittle it down to the ones you can do or want to do the most. I did do a Venus record of French tunes and on that one I sang more in French. I picked a few from that. I chose that Frishberg tune, “Do You Miss New York?” because he doesn’t get recorded or talked about that much these days and I really like his songs. “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is on there but a shorter version. Anita O’Day did the whole thing. I think there’s a little nostalgia in here from loving these two cities so much.

Both cities were quite formative for you.

Around the same time I was working with Les, I was working with David Krakauer, who is a big star in France.  I was on the road a lot with David and we were often in Paris with days off. I fell in love with the city then.

How do you balance being a sideperson and a leader?

There’s no method to it. You want to play with musicians you like, who inspire you and make you feel good. Most of the gigs I’m doing, I’m at least singing one song. I’m often featured for a song or two anyway even if I’m a sideperson. I’m happy just to play the bass. Sometimes it’s less pressure because you don’t have to go to the front and worry about how does the mic sound, and talk to the people. If you’re playing the bass, you’re just playing the bass. You’re just concentrating on one thing.

That brings up the proverbial question. How hard is it to sing and play the bass at the same time? You know that Jay Leonhart song – “It’s Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass.”

Sometimes it really is. Sometimes you want to lay back with the voice, especially with a ballad, but the bass can’t. The bass has to stay in time. I’ve had to work on it. I still work with a metronome because you can’t get away with too much playing around the beat on the bass to suit what you’re singing. One has to stay constant. Sometimes I’ve gotten around that lately by putting the bass down and singing a ballad.

Not many folks doing that double – bass and vocals – out there.

Esperanza, Katie Thiroux, Kristin Korb, Miriam Sullivan [known as Mimi Jones].  There are a few. I’m probably missing some.  It’s always going to be a challenge. Especially learning new songs. I even found that sometimes the bass has to go on auto-pilot in order to get the lyric right intonation and pitch. Sometimes you have to let the bass make some bad notes to get the lyrics out there.

Well, nobody hears the low notes anyway, right?

Right. Seriously, I always remember that people are going to be more critical of a voice than they are about the bass. Not everyone is in tune with what the bass is doing.

I saw one photo on your website of you playing electric bass, but I’ve never seen you do that.  

I love playing electric bass. I did it all those years with David Krakauer. And after Les passed away, they kept the Monday night series going for a while at the Iridium. They brought in a lot of rock musicians. We would be playing everything from Hendrix to Stevie Wonder, you name it. I got to play it a lot then, but in the past couple years I haven’t [played electric bass] and I miss it. I used to be in an R&B group that played on the Upper West Side every Wednesday night back in the 90s. I miss that repertoire. It’s fun.