If you’ve been around Indy’s jazz community at all in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Joel or Nick Tucker up on stage. In addition to their own Tucker Brothers Group, the pair of sibling sensations are also members of hip-hop/jazz juggernaut Clint Breeze and the Groove, while regularly filling in with other local jazz mainstays as well.
After releasing albums in 2015 and 2017 respectively, Joel and Nick returned in July 2019 with the latest Tucker Brothers Group full-length titled Two Parts (listen here). Not long after the album’s release, Seth Johnson met up with the brothers for an interview at Square Cat Vinyl in Fountain Square.
SETH JOHNSON: Strangely enough, I’ve never interviewed you two before. With that in mind, can you tell me when you first started playing music? Was it at all a family thing?
JOEL TUCKER: It was not a family thing. Neither of our parents really played music, although our grandparents did give us a piano when we were young, which was always fun to mess around on. Nick always messed around on it more than I did.
NICK TUCKER: We had no direction as far as the piano was concerned — neither of us took piano lessons. It was kind of just something that was there. It was tactile and interesting.
JOEL TUCKER: Then in middle school, I got introduced to music in band class. I really wanted to play trumpet, but there were already too many trumpet players. So my band director highly encouraged me to play trombone. [laughs] Later on at the beginning of high school, I got interested in taking guitar lessons. I did that, hung up the trombone, and decided to focus my efforts on guitar.
NICK TUCKER: I have a similar story. I started playing trumpet in fifth grade band. I did that for a year or two, but then I started playing electric bass in my seventh grade year. I just wanted to play in a rock band, ya know? I had a friend with a guitar, we wanted to start a band, and we needed a bass player. I remember telling my parents, “I want to get a bass,” and they were like, “Why?” [laughs by all]
I actually got a bass teacher fairly early on, and he showed me a lot of good music. We worked on some Led Zeppelin stuff, which was kind of foundational for me. But he also got me interested in jazz. Jazz wasn’t something we listened to in our household — we didn’t grow up with it. It was probably my sophomore year of high school that I started listening to jazz.
I remember the first time I heard Bill Evans Trio it just blew my mind. I couldn’t even follow the beat in any of the songs, and I made that my goal [to follow the beat]. I remember the first time I put on the Bill Evans Trio’s recording of “Milestones” and was able to count to four with it. I was really proud of myself. [laughs]
SETH JOHNSON: What about you Joel? How were you introduced to jazz?
JOEL TUCKER: It was a similar situation. Nick got introduced to it, so I did too. Because at that point, we were both playing stringed instruments. I picked up a Wes Montgomery album and a Pat Martino album, and those were integral to what I started listening to. They were both organ trio records. The Wes record was A Dynamic New Sound. It was like, “Oh man. I’ve never heard the guitar played like this.”
I had listened to rock. So when I heard the guitar with a really clean, warm sound, it really made me think, “Oh wow. You can do a ton with a guitar.”
SETH JOHNSON: When did you two first play together?
JOEL TUCKER: When we were in high school, we played at Monon Coffee Co. with a quartet, which was real fun. That was the first “gig” I remember playing. It was crazy because it was packed. Later on, I heard from Sandy Williams that Pat Metheny used to play coffee shops in Broad Ripple, and I was like, “What? That was our first gig.”
SETH JOHNSON: Was that a one-time thing then?
JOEL TUCKER: That group wasn’t a one-time thing. Believe it or not, we also played outside of some art galleries at First Friday in Fountain Square.
NICK TUCKER: That would’ve been 2005 or 2006. I think Tatjana Rebelle got us that gig back in the day.
SETH JOHNSON: Let’s move onto your pursuits after high school. What did each of you gain from your musical schooling in college?
NICK TUCKER: UIndy was great for me because it was a small music school. At that point, I was really inexperienced on the double bass — I was mostly a bass guitarist. I was able to get a lot of personalized attention. I had a great bass teacher named Peter Hanson. He’s one of the bassists in the ISO and is just a really great guy and a great teacher. I mostly studied orchestral bass with him, doing orchestral playing and solo bass literature.
But then, I also studied with Harry Miedema, who’s been a mainstay in the Indianapolis jazz education scene since the ’80s. He’s got a cool story. He was musical director for The O’Jays for a long time and played with the Four Tops and Earth, Wind & Fire. He was the one that really taught me how to improvise and play jazz. As an educator, he was exactly what I needed.
It wasn’t until I went to grad school [at IU] and came back that I really started to make a career out of it.
SETH JOHNSON: You went to IU for some of your studies too, right Joel?
JOEL TUCKER: I went there for my undergraduate, and I’m actually there right now finishing a master’s. Being at IU, I studied with guitarist Corey Christiansen, who was someone that really opened my mind to so many things that were necessary as a guitarist. A lot of the lessons were focused around tone and technique, which were things I lacked knowledge on.
Now, I’m back at school studying with Dave Stryker, who is another phenomenal guitarist. His bag and groove lies in straight-ahead jazz, which is super great. Learning bebop on any instrument kind of opens your world up to playing almost any style of music in the realm of pop contemporary jazz.
SETH JOHNSON: When would you pinpoint as the official start of Tucker Brothers Group?
NICK TUCKER: I think we first started playing together regularly at the Chatterbox.
JOEL TUCKER: Yeah, if you’re just thinking of us playing together, then it was at the Chatterbox.
NICK TUCKER: Well really, when we were both at IU together, we played together quite a bit.
JOEL TUCKER: 2010 to 2012 was the start of [us being] like, “Hey. We need to start a band.” And then, it was after we graduated that we got the guys (Brian Yarde and Sean Imboden) involved.
NICK TUCKER: And I think that was 2014 because we recorded the first album in 2015.
SETH JOHNSON: How did things go when you two first started writing music together?
NICK TUCKER: It’s interesting because we don’t necessarily write songs together. With pretty much all of our original songs, it’s either a song I wrote or a song Joel wrote. The collaboration comes in when it’s time to bring ‘em to the band. And then, we get input from each other but also Brian and Sean, which is cool.
A lot of jazz isn’t like that. With a lot of jazz, one person writes everything, hands out the music, and says, “Play it like this.” That’s cool because that works. But what’s really great about this band is that it’s a band — it’s not just a collection of musicians. We’ve been working together for a while now, and I feel like we’ve developed a band sound.
JOEL TUCKER: It takes time to really develop your voice as a group. If you listen to our older stuff, you can definitely hear the same people playing — it’s just grown. It’s like watching a flower blossom.
SETH JOHNSON: What were you originally drawn to in Sean and Brian’s playing?
NICK TUCKER: They both just have really interesting sounds. That’s especially what drew me to Sean. And then, Brian comes from a non-jazz background, and I think that comes through in his playing. Their respective sounds were what I really liked. And with their improvising, they weren’t afraid to take chances.
JOEL TUCKER: That’s what I really like about them too. There’s no fear in the way they play. I think that’s important. So many times you hear people playing safe, and that’s cool. But to me, the art is just being in that moment and doing whatever you want to do in that moment.
SETH JOHNSON: You recently released the latest Tucker Brothers record, Two Parts. Talk to me about how things unfolded with that.
JOEL TUCKER: The writing had been taking place for about a year. We decided we wanted to do another one with the original Nine is the Magic Number group, and then feature some guest artists. A lot of the writing Nick and I did was written specifically with other instruments in mind. And then, we teamed up with Nick’s wife Kara for the artwork, and it turned out beautiful.
We would write tunes, bring them to the group, and then everybody would give their input on what they thought should happen. We’d try things out, and would either say, “We like that,” or, “We don’t like that.”
NICK TUCKER: Some of the stuff we’ve been playing for a good amount of time. Some of it was relatively new when we recorded it, but some of the songs really had a chance to come into their own character. And, I personally wanted to get a little bit away from my writing on Writing Prompts. Not that there was anything wrong with that writing — I just wanted to try some new things.
I don’t think this record is the opposite of Writing Prompts. But musically, I think it goes outside of what’s expected, at least for us.
JOEL TUCKER: Another thing that’s really important about this album is that a lot of the songs are equally focused on composition and improvisation. So it’s not just one or the other, and that’s part of the Two Parts [album title].
SETH JOHNSON: I personally thought it was cool how many female artists you had as guests on the album. Was that something you specifically took into consideration, or did it just naturally happen?
JOEL TUCKER: It just naturally happened.
NICK TUCKER: We wanted the best players we could find, and those were them. I can’t think of a better alto player around than Amanda Gardier, at least with the sound that we’re going for. Elena Escudero has got an amazing, beautiful voice.
JOEL TUCKER: I sort of wrote that song [“Warm Heart”] with Elena in mind. And Ellie Pruneau has a really awesome touch on piano. We recorded in Bloomington, and she’s based in Bloomington.
SETH JOHNSON: I talked to pianist Chris Pitts about this a while back, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as well. What excites you about the current state of Indianapolis jazz? In what ways do you feel this generation of Indy players is carrying the torch of past legends?
NICK TUCKER: I’m excited that everybody’s creating original music. Just in 2019 alone, I can think of like five albums [that came out]. Rob Dixon, Amanda Gardier, Charlie Ballantine, Premium Blend, us … there’s probably more. Clint Breeze kind of falls into that category too. I think it’s really exciting to have so much original music that people seem to be receptive of. And it is a small jazz community, but everybody seems to get along pretty well and prop each other up. I really like that too.
JOEL TUCKER: I second what Nick said about original music. I think that’s really important. If we say we’re going to play an old standard, that might mean a lot to somebody who grew up in that era, but it might not mean a lot to somebody our age. I think there’s a lot of merit to learning that music and playing that music, and then using that to create your own sound and learn melodies.