Multi-Instrumentalist, Composer, & Educator Nick Russo Discusses His Vast Musical Spectrum, His Band’s Upcoming Album, & Much More

As a musician, Nick Russo is about as well-rounded as they come; a composer, band-leader, guitarist, teacher, author, and more. One almost wonders if he’s capable of being in multiple places at one time. While that would be cool, the fact that Russo does it all, and does it well, is much cooler. 

Russo has a lifetime’s worth of performances on his resume; ranging from Carnegie Hall, to a private performance with Sir Paul McCartney in Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s home, the guitarist has had experiences most musicians only dream of. His solo endeavors signify the extent of his talent as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, but are just one part of Russo’s many achievements.

Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches, Nick Russo+11, and Hot Jazz Jumpers are the three bands Russo leads, but are not the end of his collaborative works. Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches, now just The Scooches are active in their writing and recording; although their most recent release was in 2018, the album Get Us Out Of Fearland is an ageless fusion of jazz, folk, and Americana.

Years of hard work, dedication, and practice have cemented Russo as a top guitarist/banjoist, but the notoriety has not gotten to his head. Generous with his time and knowledge, Russo has begun a new teaching program on the platform JamPlay, in addition to the private lessons he’s been giving for years. On top of all of this, he also hosts a podcast called Scooch On Over.

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Russo is the definition of an obsessive musician on the grind; his presence in every project is celebrated. His contributions to music education are thoughtful and honorable, and prove his investment in music as a performer and teacher, adding value, skill, and grace to the next generation of musicians. 

We were lucky to get a chance to chat with Russo about where it all started, The Scooches new music, and much more.

Reflecting back on your humble beginnings first picking up an instrument, who or what was it that drove you to pursue such an ambitious career in music?

My dad who passed away about 12 years ago really inspired me to listen to music and play music. My father, Rich Russo, led The Scarecrow (a 1960s rock band) that was signed to Columbia Records and opened for Sly & The Family Stone! My dad also played with Chuck Berry and met Jimi Hendrix. He was an incredibly warm, beautiful, caring human being and creative songwriter, musician and wonderful warm, loving dad. 

However, it was probably my friend, Dan Heck and his mom Flora Heck (music teacher) who really helped drive me to pursue my career in music!

Dan and I met through our private guitar teacher, Dr. David Belser. We were both studying with Dave and he thought the two of his students should meet! After we started jamming, Dan booked us weekly jazz guitar duo gigs. That one summer, we jammed, played gigs and had fun hangs! Dan’s mom reassured me that I could be a full-time musician. She would say “Why not? Why can’t you do what you love professionally?!” She was such a positive influence. When Dan left New York to attend Berklee College of Music, I visited him for a week, attended all of his classes and bought all the books. Thank you Dan and Flora Heck! Also, I need to thank my Uncle Mike who encouraged me. He told me I should treat the weekly jazz jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle as a gig and attend weekly. I took his advice and within a year I was leading my own weekly session on Wednesdays at Cleopatra’s Needle; getting to play with musicians such as Roy Hargrove, ELEW (Eric Lewis), Robert Glasper, Montez Coleman, Lee Pearson, Essiet Essiet and many other greats.

Learning and playing guitar is one thing, and a tough thing to master at that; what made you want to branch off to learn the banjo, organ, resonator, and the other instruments you’re proficient in?

I got a gig! I was hired to play with a Jazz Quartet and travel to Japan. Although I mostly played jazz guitar on that gig, I had to learn tenor banjo. After that incredible experience, I didn’t play banjo here in NYC until I got called to play with Vince Giordano & The Nighthawks. That’s when I got deep into tenor banjo; I learned so much from Vince. I also composed Indian music on tenor banjo when studying with Pandit Samir Chatterjee (“Little Hands” on my album Ro is a Teental Tukra). I always played keyboard, so naturally I gravitated toward the organ, especially playing in legendary Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy The Preacher Robin’s bands! In terms of resonator, it was a natural expansion of playing slide on my guitar.

Compared to other genres, what sets jazz apart for you as a musician?

There is a feeling of freedom to be “genreless” or encompass “all genres,” but those musical situations depend on the musicians I’m playing with and the environment we’re in.

When I play music with my brothers from others such as Miles Griffith, David Pleasant, Russell Hall and some other incredible open minded musicians, we can go anywhere, especially in terms of improvisation. Perhaps it’s the “jazz” in us that gives us that “6th sense of depth” in communicating harmonically and rhythmically. In other words, our jazz sensibilities enable us to hear more complex chord changes, polyrhythms and swing on a deeper level. When you study a rhythmic genre such as jazz or Brazilian, you really dig deep into the harmonic structures, sing and hear everything in all 12 keys, being able to hear and execute complicated rhythms, odd meters and, especially, learn how to swing! 

On the other side of the coin, after I was heavy into bebop for many years, I had to “unlearn” some of the tools and learn what not to play when playing other genres. 

How do you feel about the modern state of jazz music in 2021?

To me, music has to do with the musicians making it. When I hear new music from Robert Glasper, Russell Hall, Jon Batiste, Miles Griffith, Veronica Swift and other artists I know and love, I just hear amazing music. In that case, I love their modern state of jazz in 2021!

So your JamPlay lesson program offers guitar lessons for players of all levels. What inspired you to join this platform and create this curriculum?

In Indian classical music, performing and teaching go hand in hand. Since I’m a student at heart, I perform full-time and I love sharing the excitement of music and sharing the passion and joy I get from playing music!  With the pandemic forcing musicians not to tour, I transitioned my session work online, recording my guitar parts for Gordon Au’s Grand St. Stompers, The Hot Sardines and other groups. In addition, I started to teach students online and that’s when I found JamPlay!

I was inspired that I could share my unique ear-based approach and reach a wider audience through JamPlay. I tend to improvise when I teach, as I have 100s of lesson plans in my head, but customize on the fly depending on who I am teaching, their needs and interests at any given moment. However, I really enjoyed the experience of solidifying my pedagogy and curriculum into a highly organized video course that includes a step by step to play blues guitar, improvise the blues on one chord and over a standard 12-bar blues. I also created and shot a shorter blues slide guitar video course as well.

In addition to JamPlay, your band The Scooches is recording a new album. When might listeners expect to hear some new songs?

Actually we will be premiering our new originals at our shows!

Here are three upcoming July concerts: 

Friday, July 9th

The Scooches will be streaming a house concert from our home.

6pm ET (1 set)

Tuesday, July 13

The Scooches at Ballard Park in Ridgefield, CT

Free outdoor concert 

7PM (2 sets  45 -50 min)

Saturday, July 17 (7-9pm)

The Scooches at The River House in West Virginia 

24 Rickie Davy

Capon Bridge, WV 26711

Can you fill us in on any overarching themes, motifs, or inspirations within the album?

Certainly a feeling of more unity, diversity and inclusiveness.

During the pandemic I marched with Jon Batiste, Russell Hall and other inspiring musicians here in NYC for Black Lives Matter, Women’s Lives Matter and Trangender Lives Matter. I’ve also been vocal about bringing more awareness to protect Asian Americans and Asians around the world. These themes will be reflected on our new album through the various world musicians in The Scooches, guest musicians from diverse backgrounds and cultures and world instruments.

Recently, I’ve been performing as a side person with artists such as Zeb Bengash (from Pakistan) and Rasia Said (from Madagascar) plus I continue to work with Grammy-winning tabla player and producer, Deep Singh, drummer, Harvey Wirht (from Suriname) and other incredible musicians playing world music. Betina’s new lyrics reflect pandemic life at home and a deep interest in meditation, mindfulness and the artful muse. Her words aim to inspire us to empower ourselves, women, more diversity and look deeper into kindness.

I’ve been increasingly more vocal about protecting our environment, continuing to use my metal water canteens, compostable trash bags, advocating for no plastic water bottles, using a bidet and bamboo toiletry rather than wasting toilet paper since bamboo is more replenishable than trees. We have solar panels at our home so our electric bill is only $25 a month, that includes us using A/C!

Furthermore, we have compost and we compost everything from vegetables to coffee grounds. Start with not accepting a plastic bag and stop buying plastic bottles. 

Between both of those endeavors, it seems to make for a pretty busy year. But with the return of live music, might you have light touring or gigs lined up?

I’ve been performing as a side person with Alphonso Horne’s Gotham City Kinds, Gordon Au’s Grand St Stompers, The Hot Sardines, Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Jazz Band, Anastasia Rene’s Quintet and other bands in NYC. 

I just performed as a side person with Ron Wasserman, the principal bassist with New York City Ballet, performing the music of Duke Ellington and with Razia Said and her  band (with Harvey Wirht) at the International Arts Festival in Brooklyn. As mentioned, The Scooches will be performing in Connecticut and West Virginia this month. Our sister band, Hot Jazz Jumpers will perform at Opus 40 Sculpture Park & Museum at Saugerties, NY, Sunday July 11th. Betina and I are both performing as side persons with a band playing at a festival at Lindsay Park Lawn in Davenport, Iowa.

You’ve had an incredibly impressive career so far, but if you had to narrow it down to a few pinnacle moments, what might they be?

Playing with Paul McCartney, my time in Jimmy McGriff’s band, gigs with Miles Griffith’s New Ting with David Pleasant and my 7 Year Anniversary concert with my band, Nick Russo+11.

Additionally, I really treasure the jam sessions with my dad, Rich Russo, Uncle Mike and my Uncle Johnny. I’m looking forward to releasing the amazing interview with my Uncle Mike (the last living Russo from my family, and from that generation, aside from my mom).

What advice might you give to the younger generation who may be seeking a musical path such as yours?

Enjoy the process! Find the joy in learning, practicing, playing music and playing with other musicians in ensembles. Make sure you are playing music for the right reasons. In other words, if you’re enjoying the music itself, jamming with others that you are most comfortable with, and accepting the gigs that resonate most with you, you will connect deeply with the music.

I know sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate which gigs to accept and what musical decisions to make. Search your soul, meditate and check in with how all the parts of your body and mind are feeling. For example, I experience so much joy, love and musical freedom when playing with my bands The Scooches, Nick Russo+11, Hot Jazz Jumpers and with souls that I’ve known a long time such as Betina Hershey, Miles Griffith, Harvey Wirht, David Pleasant, Russell Hall, Gordon Au, Michael Valerio, Essiet Essiet, Willard Dyson, Kyle Struve, Chris Carroll and Josh Holcomb to name a few. In these musical situations, I feel most comfortable and my connection to the music is deep and honest. With these musicians we can improvise and travel anywhere stylistically, sonically & rhythmically! 

However, challenging ourselves and playing outside our comfort zone is equally important and necessary for musical growth. My time playing with musicians such as ELEW (Eric Lewis), Robert Glasper, Ari Hoenig, the Big Apple Circus, playing Rhapsody in Blue with Steven Ray Artists orchestra (Juilliard alumni) for Princess Anne (daughter of Queen Elizabeth), Malika Zarra (original Moroccan music), Afro-Peruvian music with Emiliano Valerio and Issa Cabrera, original Pakastaki/Indian fusion with Zeb Bangash, traditional Indian raga with Smita Guha and original music from Madagascar with Razia Said and Harvey Wirht has helped shape me into the musician I am today.

Sing everything you play, play everything you sing in all keys, work with a metronome, especially with subdividing, polyrhythms, metric modulations and odd meters. Listen, sing and play as much West African music, Indian music, jazz, and Bach, as possible! Of course, listen to a lot of blues and try to hear the blues in all the other genres of music. 

Lastly, and most importantly, be kind to everyone and be grateful for everything you have. Gratitude and love are so vital for us as human beings, especially as a community of musicians. From my interview with saxophone master, Patience Higgins, treat every gig with as much respect as if you are the leader. Be punctual, study the music, be prepared, play what’s appropriate musically and leave space and include long tones in your improvisation.

The improvisers that I most admire, and that resonate most with me, such as Miles Davis, Ali Akbar Khan, Aretha Franklin, Wes Montgomery, Bessie Smith, Ray Charles, Carlos Santana (to name a few) utilize rests, space, whole notes & sustain in their improvisation and music, creating meaningful phrasing and soulfulness. 

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